Sunday, 8 March 2009

Egypt, the final frontier.

Soldier standing silently staring into a sandstorm in Sinai

Egypt, the final frontier.
We arrived in Egypt in a sandstorm, or the aftermath, anyway. The air was heavy with sand and visibility was very limited. The front half of the convoy went to a tented reception in the little town at the foot of the mountain that the border lies on; a sweet town on the mediterranean that probably never sees a tourist from one years end tothenext. No tourists come from Egypt the Libyan Official had said. For Tobruk where we stayed our last night they arrive in Tripoli or Benghazi and come by coach. It must be a dying trade visiting those graves, but what we passed at a fair clip looked well maintained.
Further along is El Alamein, which has its own airport. No reference was made to this historic place as we listened to a second reception last night and stayed in a military hotel, presumably a rest and recuperation centre, which had huge columns in the lobby, and lots of gold and ornaament, but lacked some class in the bathroom department. Still, huge rooms, free, large beds, a full 7 hours - really luxury.
The Egyptians are managing the convoy better than anyone before. Cutting us into manageable chunks they move us efficiently wuth huge numbers of police and Army. parked along the motorway, the vehicles were guarded overnight by soldiers while we were bussed off to our hotel. Actually the numbers of Police and soldiers is remarkable. They have been stationed every 50 metres or so, often standing at attention, always facing away from the road, often standing to attention, but some unable to resist the temptation to turn and look at us. Every 50 metres for 1000 kilometres. that's 20,000 soldiers, not to mention the hundreds and hundreds who marshal our convoy and count the vehicles obsessively. We have not seen any 'real' people until we crossed the Suez canal, again in a sand storm. The number of soldiers dropped and suddenly there were small pockets of crowds. When we gave out Palestinian flags, however, the police used their sirens to move us forward and the crowds back. Still there was a good crowd waiting for us at El Arish where we arrived a couple of hours ago. I have had to blag my way past the soldiers on the gate of the hotel and here I am at 1.30 am, and we are going to Gaza tomorrow! 10 sharp! The end is in sight and lots more people are coming to join the convoy by air to Cairo, 2 of them to join the Pea. welcome Arif and Asim.
It has been a long journey, over 5000 miles on our mileometer, and now only 50 to go, I don't know what to think and I'm not sure that others do either.
At last nights reception, the Egyptian minister speaking said that we would go through the Rafah crossing at noon on Sunday - as easy as that. Almost seems like we needn't have come 5000 miles if the crossing is going to open that easily.
I really fear that the Israelis will make a meal of this crossing, saying that aid always gets transmitted to Gaza etc etc, but the gates will shut behind us. I already suspect that only vehicles which are staying in Gaza will be allowed through, but I'm going to take the Pea if humanly possible. I need to take it to bring back some exports from there.
The politics of the convoy had got very introverted, like a remote village in the mountains where the only entertainment for the locals is to call each other withches. I am not certain that the rumours about the photos of people holding a gun being published were started to embarass the filmmakers, possibly by a young anti-intellectual crowd, or possibly by the leadership. Anyway, there were no embarassing photos in the press, just an article about how George Galloway was selling out the Egyptian Opposition by doing a deal directly with the Government. All the threatening behaviours were based on a fiction that has spread through the convoy faster than any good news.

Whatever, four people got refused entry into Egypt, and have been hosted by the Libyans until they can fly to catch up, or go home. We had a meeting this morning as to whether to wait for them or move on. It was overwhelming that we should keep going. I think that brings the total of arrests or visa refusals to around 13, although a couple of those have caught up. There is a man who has been in Guantanamo bay, and one who was imprisoned in Afghanistan for nine months by the Northern Alliance. People who who care about Palestine are obviously prepared to give up a lot.
--Written yesterday --It's getting dark and we are about to go around Alexandria. We have just entered a stretch of road lined with policemen or soldiers, and buildings, although miles and miles of buildings look uninhabited, and may be holiday accommodation. Whether or not, there are no people, no cheering crowds, and I don't think that there will be. We are going to be going around Alexandria after dark, although that is the time that we have been consistently mobbed in other countries. Here, however, I fear that we will stay on the motorways and be invisible. We were not on Al Jazeera news last night.
Instaed, our companions are the soldiers and Gaddafi's convoy, and its bus full of journalists and organisers. the Egyptian soldiers wave at us from the side of the road, and occasionally we get a wave from distant donkey carts and farmers. At last we have been drawn in to the side of the road and the pent up traffic behind us has been allowed to flow past, although the other side still looks far more empty than a Friday night motorway should.
After Suez the crowds did come out, even though there was a dust storm where sand creeps into every orifice, and we kept the Pea's windows closed tight Spontaneous Demonstration of Schoolchildren in Libya
Our journey started as a mad chatic and totally disorganised journey through total disinterest in Europe, progressed through cheering populations in Morrocco, through stage managed crowds in Algeria, as well as the bleakness of the central Highlands. Constantine the city where the soldiers shared their guns, and on over the cold lands of the Algerian Tunisian border getting but small interest from the locals, until their enthusuam exploded out in the little border town of Ben Guerdane. Onwards through Libya, where the convoy was contolled with a light but efficient touch, including a passage through Tripoli, our only capital city, and where we missed the main groups of people because of our insistence on taking a short cut to save a day. And now, Egypt, where we are courteously, efficiently and totally segregated from the population, and where I have no doubt that we will be delivered to Rafah at 12 noon on Sunday without ever seeing a single crowd in this country of 50 million people, almost all of whom, I'd bet. would like to tell us how much they support the Gazans. (We have now seen these small crowds in Sinai, and they have told us how much they support thePalestinians. El Arish seems to be a place where the authorities don't mind a show of support from the locals.

I received a text from a contact in Gaza, and I replied that I was busy with the crowds in El Arish. She replied that I should wait until I see the crowds in Gaza!
I can't wait!

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