The building housing the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate is not beautiful. Its beige concrete is filthy with Cairene grit. Towering, meter-square, concrete columns stand in rows in front of a cobalt blue, mirrored-glass façade, a jarring mix of faux-Greek architecture and modernist conceit. It has a large set of steps in front of it, rising for five or six meters. On Saturday, on those steps, over 200 Egyptian activists for Palestinian rights, alongside 20 or more international sympathizers, condemned the underground metal wall the Mubarak government is now building on the Gaza-Egypt border.
The event was filled with energy. One participant clambered atop the riot barriers, holding onto two fellow demonstrators for support, leading the protesters in a call-and-response chant while he precariously balanced on the barrier, nearly jumping off it while he uttered: “Hosni Mubarak? False!” and so illegitimate; “Gamal Mubarak? False!” “Imprisonments? False!”
Many of the demonstrators carried Palestinian flags and had keffiyehs wrapped around their necks. One of the organizers, Mohamed Abu Sharkh, explained that the “demonstration was organized by civil society,” that it wasn’t directly affiliated with any political party, but was instead a more general expression of dismay – or fury – with the wall.
Participants hoisted placards in Arabic and English, reading, “Down with Mubarak, Down with the Wall!” and “Stop Mubarak’s Wall of Shame!” One was peppered with “As, for Anarchism,” written in red and the black, the traditional colors of the worldwide anarchist movement. Militants from Egypt’s tiny socialist movement were there, too, selling papers, as were members of the April 6 Movement, a pro-democracy movement less than two years old.
The ubiquitous black-clad, riot-shield bearing, security forces looked on behind the steel barricades they erect around every protest in Egypt to prevent them from spilling out onto the street, and also to remind protesters and onlookers alike who is in control.
The wall’s construction is entering its final stages. It is made of tremendous plates of steel and is reportedly bombproof and cannot be cut through. It extends some 20 meters deep. The deepest tunnels are deeper than that, and smugglers think that the wall alone will be insufficient to cut them off. But the wall won’t be acting alone. It has been built in concert with a series of 30-meter deep pipes, apparently connected to the sea. The plan is probably to pump seawater from the Mediterranean through the pipes, inundating the land and making it too soft and sodden to tunnel through.
The tunnels would not be the only casualties of the flooding. Pumping saltwater into the land, only a couple dozen meters underground, would almost certainly precipitate an environmental disaster. The Rafah area is scattered with olive and citrus farms. Furthermore, the area draws its fresh water from an underground canal that runs from a town, Sheikh Zuyawid, to Rafah in the northern part of the Egyptian Sinai. Dumping saltwater into that water source will make it unfit for human consumption. The Egyptian Embassy’s Consul General in Beirut, Ahmad Hilmi, has said, “There have been no studies on the effects of the plan.”
Water experts in Gaza say simply that the Wall will destroy Gaza’s aquifer. Already, 90 to 95 percent of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption and the aquifer is about to collapse, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
Arab Contractors, an Egyptian government-owned firm, is assembling the wall, while the slates are being manufactured in the United States and then shipped to Egypt. Arab Contractors has denied its involvement, but sources on the ground in Rafah as well as Egyptian activists strongly believe that it is involved. Staff at the American Embassy have confirmed that the United States government is providing technical assistance to the Egyptian engineers who are assembling the wall.
Once cut off, it is not clear what the effects on Gaza’s economy will be. One cartoon, popular in the Middle East, depicts a steel arm with riveted panels and inscribed with a six-pointed star holding a metal container over Gaza, while a Palestinian breathes through an oxygen tube that runs under border through the desert. An Egyptian holds a spike that has severed the oxygen line.
Others demur. Some NGOs have claimed that the wall will only go 18 feet into the ground, and that is primarily intended to placate an American government that funnels billions of dollars in military aid to Egypt every year, and which does not approve of uncontrolled commerce through the tunnels.
The Israeli government is even less happy with the smugglers’ tunnels, through which the goods pass on which Gaza’s people subsist, and which the Hamas government taxes heavily – 350 million dollars a year, according to some estimates. The tunnels make the siege considerably less hermetic, probably the reason why senior Israeli military analysts are discussing the prospect of a new attack on Gaza, this one meant to reoccupy the Philadelphi Corridor, in the Gaza Strip’s south, the border region that the tunnels have warrened.
As Maj. Gen. (Reserve) Yom-Tov Samia, the former head of the Southern Command, has said, “We need to create a situation which reduces [Hamas’] oxygen supply.” The reference is to the arms-supply tunnels.
The demonstration in Cairo did not take place in isolation. On the same day, in Beirut, a group of students marched from the cemetery in Shatila refugee camp to the Egyptian Embassy, protesting Arab governments’ complicity and the involvement of Arab Contractors, with operates in 29 countries, including Lebanon. The newly formed Falastine Horra (Free Palestine) group organized the march.
This was not the first demonstration in Lebanon. On January 24, a protest in front of the Egyptian Embassy, organized by the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth, descended to violence, with three protesters injured by security forces.
At the Egyptian protest, slogans and complaints extended beyond merely the wall. The Egyptian government is selling gas at subsidized prices to Israel. There is an ongoing lawsuit against this arrangement moving through the courts. While Egyptians suffer from the effects of ongoing poverty, the fact the government sells hydrocarbons at a discount rate to a government most of the population despises is not a popular move.
The wall, meanwhile, draws near to completion, as winches and heavy machinery have arrived to pull from the ground the boulders that block the construction company from lowering the final slats into place. And then speculation will turn to observation, and if indeed the wall is as impermeable as some fear, it is difficult to imagine what will happen to Gaza’s imprisoned inhabitants. But it will not be pleasant.