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Echoes of Seattle: From Manama to Casablanca

Sonya Meyerson-Knox
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

They’re talking about McDonald’s and Starbucks. Someone’s already downloaded the facts about a Burger King restaurant in an Israeli settlement, and now they’re compiling a “Top Ten American Companies to Boycott—and Why” list. They’re talking about petitions, about email forwards, maybe building a website, sending out cellular phone text messages. It could be New York or San Francisco, Porte Allegre or Buenos Aires. It happens to be Beirut, Lebanon.

America’s left had its Seattle. The Middle East just had its equivalent.

After Europe’s mass anti-capitalist protests, the only place seen as “safe” enough for the WTO to meet was Doha, Qatar. That was November. Six months—and a month of region-wide protests—later, it’s a safe bet the international elites won’t be meeting in the Middle East any time soon.

The Arab regimes are caught in a contradiction—trapped on the one hand between working toward WTO membership and meeting IMF demands and, on the other, by an increasingly active population that is adapting new strategies to circumvent ever-dominating security services.

Around the same time that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was receiving his official invitation to attend June’s G-8 meeting in Canada, the Egyptian people had just started buying “Abu Ammar” (Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s nom de guerre) potato chips. “The more you buy, the more you build,” the bags read, complete with a picture of Arafat waving a Palestinian flag. Abu Ammar chips are apparently selling even better than rival “The Hero” chips, that show a Palestinian school boy throwing a stone at Israeli tanks.

A day later—May 26—a scuffle between American military personnel and a Bahraini shopkeeper turned into in a giant anti-US demonstration, with protesters demanding the removal of US bases from the Gulf kingdoms.

On May 27 in Damascus hundreds of people gathered to applaud Syrian communist leader Riad al-Turk as he entered a courtroom, facing charges of treason. This was the fifth such protest for the aging activist, one of ten political prisoners jailed since September, 2001.

In Lebanon, as Beirut hosted the International Association of Advertiser’s annual conference and UN-sponsored workshops on WTO rules and regulations in late May, the Liberation Film Festival was showing Showdown in Seattle and The Battle of Algiers, and conferences were being held in honor of Mehdi Amel (the most famous Arab communist theorist).

The vast political contradictions inherent in daily life in the Arab world, and the battles they inspire, are increasingly apparent these days, pressing against the limits of the Arab regimes, providing constant challenges to a system that cannot hold, threatening change to the corrupt dictatorships and bankrupt democracies. But it is a movement in hiatus, a movement growing but in too many directions, a movement still stunned by its successes in April, still confused by its subsequent arrest.

April intifada

On March 29, Israel began its most deadly attack on the West Bank since the intifada began in September 2000. Within hours the Israeli Army had penned Arafat into his compound in Ramallah. Days later they entered the West Bank towns of Bethlehem, then Nablus, then Beit Jala, then Jenin. The Arab street—often led by the left—rose up in response in the largest protests seen for decades, shaking regimes across the Arab world.

In Egypt, hundreds of thousands; in Yemen, 100,00; in Morocco, 1.5 million—on the same day! In Beirut, there were demonstrations daily for weeks on end, in Saudi Arabia there were unsanctioned protests. Following Arafat’s declaration from Ramallah—broadcast live over Al-Jazeera TV—“I’ll die a martyr, (like the) millions of martyrs for Jerusalem,” the region was alight.

In Cairo, students gathered on university campuses, fighting with the police who barred them from spilling out onto the streets. In Beirut, Palestinian refugees poured from the camps to march with the students, as demonstrations started and stopped and reformed across the country. In Amman, the students broke out of their universities to march on the US Embassy. In Bahrain, following the US ambassador’s provocative call for a moment of silence for Israelis killed, students marched on the embassy, setting parts of it on fire by the end of the week.

“Oh cowardly Arab governments, tomorrow your weapons will be ours!” they chanted in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, as thousands marched on an oil executives meeting on April 2. The police arrested 60, injured hundreds, and killed one.

In Saudi Arabia, they drove to Qatar to protest, before braving the kingdom’s wrath and holding their own demonstrations. In Khartoum, Sudan, over a million people marched.

In the week that followed two more protesters were killed—a child in Jordan and a student in Bahrain. A McDonald’s in Bahrain was trashed. In Beirut, high school students took to picketing in front of Burger King’s following their demonstrations, chanting “It’s a people’s intifada.” Following the Israeli siege of 200 Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Catholic schools across Lebanon went on strike—showing solidarity with the Palestinians for the first time since the civil war.

Twenty thousand marched in Kuwait, the country “liberated” by the US in the Gulf War.

In Jordan, even Queen Rania wore a kuffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) and led a demonstration. The next day all demonstrations in Amman were officially called off, and police clashed with protesters as they flooded the streets in defiance.

In Egypt the Lawyers’ Syndicate, nicknamed “Petrograd,” became the organizational center for students and activists. For the first time in decades demonstrations were led not by the Muslim Brotherhood, but by the student left, calling for “Revolution until victory – in Palestine and Egypt.”

A sit-in begun on March 30 in Beirut lasted 49 days, regularly gathering 200 people despite the opposition of political parties, and became the gathering point of all demonstrations. They were joined one week later by members of the International Solidarity Movement, recently returned from Palestine.

The regimes return

In many respects, however, the movement and its activists were primarily students, and it remained that way. Arab workers, though immensely sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle, were not brought into the students’ battles. In Beirut in late April, electricity workers demonstrated against impending privatization, but the students at the sit-in didn’t know until the next day. In Cairo, after a particularly vicious police response, the demonstrations were limited to the university grounds.

Disillusionment grew as the allegedly “radical” regimes like Libya and Iran refused to use the oil weapon, and Saudi Arabia even increased oil production to compensate for Iraq’s brief oil boycott. Even before the Israeli Army began withdrawing from Ramallah, the Arab regimes began reasserting their control. Organizers were arrested, newspapers censored.

By the May 15 protests and commemorations of the Nakba (remembering the disaster of 1948) held across the region, the numbers had dwindled and it became clear that the momentum of the April protests was gone.

The failure of the UN and the Arab states to force an inquiry into the Jenin massacre, Arafat’s sell-out of the Palestinians cornered in the Church of the Nativity, and the Arab states’ empty condemnation of violence effectively put a halt to the vast majority of protests and demonstrations. Except in one respect.

Grassroots action

By early June, following waves of arrests and governmental crackdowns, the movement, any form of protest, should have succumbed to the distraction of the World Cup and died.

It didn’t. It evolved, instead, into a level of grassroots activism previously unimaginable in most parts of the Arab world, taking the form of fund-raising campaigns, food and medicine drives, petitions, forums, acts of non-violent civil disobedience and, most importantly, a region-wide boycott of American products. After all, explained an activist in Cairo, “the real politics start after the demonstrations end.”

Across Egypt a new organization has formed, the Intifada Solidarity Movement, centered in part around teach-ins and delivering food and medicine across the border into Gaza. Seminars on topics ranging from Palestine to privatization are held at the Lawyers’ Syndicate, open to anyone. Vastly more daring than the Muslim Brotherhood, these activists have produced chants like “Hosni Mubarak is like Ariel Sharon – same shape and same color.” And although at least 12 of its organizers have been arrested, the majority were freed, and have taken part in recent teach-ins.

In Saudi Arabia a grassroots fund-raising campaign not aligned with the ruling family or any Islamic groups collected $160 million in aid to Palestine.

In Jordan, a group of independent activists created the “Palestine. Dying2Live” campaign which included distribution of posters and stickers across Amman, a fund-raising campaign, and a website with downloadable graphics. The campaign was so successful in challenging the regimes’ claims of support for the Palestinian cause that the Jordanian government shut down the website.

In Beirut, there have been film festivals and art shows whose proceeds are donated to Palestinian causes. Activists have also started “Lunching for Palestine,” whereby all the profits from one day’s lunch at a certain restaurant are donated. New political magazines have sprung up, as well as a burgeoning Indymedia outlet.

Centered around the Beirut sit-in, creative alternatives to the typical party-dominated demonstrations have emerged. In front of the UN building hundreds of students, activists and Palestinian children from the camps have gathered banging pots and pans, blowing whistles and shouting for the UN to “wake up” and investigate the massacre in Jenin. When a UN official finally met with the demonstrators, they offered him “a picture from Jenin,” then, suddenly, all participants went silent, and fell on the ground as if dead.

The sit-in also hosted discussions on globalization, teach-ins on direct action and civil disobedience. But the most innovative and inspiring events across the region have centered around the boycott.

A people’s boycott

Begun simultaneously throughout the Arab world in the heady days of April, the boycott of American products was the one aspect of the April demonstrations that resonated with the Arab people. It’s viewed, explained an activist in Bahrain, “as the least you can do.” Although the Arab world has tried boycott campaigns in the past, this one is the first one to be initiated and organized at the grassroots level.

Previous efforts were state-run, coordinated through the Boycott Office in Damascus dating back to the 60s. They made it illegal for any Arab company to interact with Israeli companies, and tried to discourage Arab companies from importing American products. With the exception of the OPEC oil embargo in the 70s, the Arab boycott had little effect—both on Arab business policy and on the Arab street.

Because of Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and the spread of globalization, American products today dominate the Arab market—most noticeable, of course, are the cigarette brands and the fast-food joints.

In Saudi Arabia the boycott campaign is being conducted through universities, mosques, newspapers, the internet and cellular phone text messages. Grade school students stand in front of stores distributing flyers that list brands to be boycotted. The Saudi daily Al-Watan estimated a drop of 20-30% in sales of US products. Fast-food restaurants’ profits have dropped at least 40%—to the extent that Burger King has run desperate color advertisements saying its products and proceeds are entirely Saudi.

In Bahrain, the demand for alternatives to American products is so great that stores are importing Zamzam, Iran’s “Islamic” version of Coke. Most stores in the UAE, as well as Bahrain, have cleared their shelves of American products. In Morocco, activists are targeting Coke and McDonald’s, calling on the people to “wage economic war.” The McDonald’s in Rabat is predicting its second year of losses, and Coke sales are predicted to fall by 50%.

In Lebanon, direct action has merged with the boycott movement, itself a combination of leftist activists and Islamic groups. In addition to the petitions and posters common to every Arab city, the boycott movement has organized events every week since the beginning of April. It began with a non-violent occupation of Burger King, held the same day as US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Beirut. The restaurant was effectively closed for two hours. The next week it was followed by a sit-in at Starbucks, with protestors handing out free samples of Arabic coffee to would-be Starbucks customers.

Later it grew into boycott festivals. On a Saturday morning 40 people wearing “Boycott American products” t-shirts rode bikes through Beirut. That afternoon boycott centers were set up with balloons, petitions, pamphlets targeting specific brands.

Last week focused on Burger King, next week is McDonald’s. Marlboro, which used to sell 50,000 packs of cigarettes a week, is down to 5,000.

The magnitude of such an enduring campaign in the midst of police dictatorships and historic state repression is immense.

The boycott is the loudest form of protest in countries where any protest is illegal. But by linking it to the anti-capitalist, anti-globalization movement, using direct action tactics made popular in Seattle and Genoa, the boycott has also become the region’s most successful form of grassroots protest.

The campaign has cut across political, social and class lines, bringing together veteran activists with previously apolitical mothers of five, members of outlawed Communist parties with Islamic group leaders, business executives and factory workers.

Like any boycott, the campaign makes individual actions far more effective by linking them to larger movements. In a part of the world where even activists suffer from feelings of isolation, becoming linked to an effective international movement is an astounding first.

And it’s caught on in a much deeper sense than a western boycott. In boycotting American products, and targeting international symbols of capitalist domination, the Arab people are consciously rejecting not only their governments’ failed neo-liberal economic policies, but the entire system of international corporate abuse.

Mass support for the boycott shows that the Arab street knows, now more than ever, that the struggle against Israeli aggression is also the fight against their own regimes—both part of the battle against capitalist globalization.