Many thanks to the great efforts of Debi Chakrabarty, James Pugh, and to everyone who showed up to this rally in London! Pictures below, followed by an article detailing the event.
Article by Debi Chakrabarty, the rally’s organizer, and Paul Gunn:
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I send this ‘report’ with a very heavy heart…while all the participants would agree that the London rally was relatively ‘successful’, we are all tremendously saddened by recent news that Kareem is being physically tortured in prison. Of course, this strengthens our resolve, and makes us hope, even more fervently, that Kareem is freed soon.
The weather may have been cold on Friday afternoon, but the embassy officials were anything but. Although they did close the blinds to the reception area on the ground floor after about 20 minutes, they continued to observe the rally from various windows located on upper floors. Many of them were seen smiling and waving at us from these windows. In fact, some of the male embassy officials seemed to be winking at the (rather attractive) female protesters, which we found more than a little bit odd.
Different individuals, in various parts of the building (and on the street) took numerous pictures of us, from every imaginable angle. We also noticed that there were several security cameras mounted on the front of the Embassy. (I hope that none of the rally participants were hoping to visit Egypt soon!)
Representatives from the London School of Economics, University College London (thank you, Oliver!), the Oxford Hayek Society (thank you, Andrew!), Queen Mary, University of London (thank you, Paul!), IPN (thank you, Caroline!), Amnesty International (LSE student chapter – thank you for helping us publicize the rally!), and the freelance journalism/blogging community (thank you, Helen!) were present.
Other individuals who could not make it to the rally (including representatives from IEA and King’s College, London) assured me that they would be participating in the campaign by writing letters, signing petitions, donating money, and doing whatever else they could to help Kareem regain his freedom.
The first 40 minutes passed without incident – we chanted “Free Kareem!” every time an official entered or exited the building, with little to no response. A few officials walked out and picked up copies of leaflets detailing the media coverage that we had brought along. Pedestrian traffic on the street was minimal, but the few people who did walk by seemed intrigued by our presence. Some asked for some more literature about the case, which we handed out. A few toddlers looked inquisitively at their mothers for clues about what was going on. One of the most memorable moments occurred when a young [presumably] Muslim woman (wearing a hijab) approached us, smiled timidly, made a “thumbs up” sign with both hands, and quietly walked away. We were fairly sure that she knew exactly who Kareem was and why we were there.
After about 40 minutes in the cold (at which point I had to assure the lady to my left that she was not suffering from frost bite… yet), one of the embassy officials – wearing an eye-catching fighter-jet pin on his jacket collar – approached us and asked: “Who is Kareem? Do you know what he wrote? Do you know why he was imprisoned?”
Our IPN representative launched into an eloquent and respectful explanation of what Kareem had written, why we were protesting his imprisonment, and why it would make sense for the Egyptian government to correct the mistake that they had made. The official’s responses were varied and, at times, mind-boggling. At one point, he explained that insulting Islam is a grave sin in Egyptian/Islamic culture (which, he assured us, we could not understand in the secular West), and that accordingly, individuals (especially the young) deserve punishment for disrespectful actions/words. He also claimed that criticism of the President is acceptable, as long as it is civil and as long as the President is allowed to respond to his critics. This left many participants in the rally wondering about how many times President Bush was allowed to ‘respond’ to his rather ‘uncivil’ critics. But we restrained ourselves and decided not to bring America into the debate, which was probably wise. Instead, we responded to these arguments with variations of the phrase that Andrew (from Oxford) had written on his placard: “Criticism is not a Crime!”
What was most galling about his position was his cultural relativism, and his denial of fundamental rights for all people in all places. He seemed to suggest that just as British culture condones the wearing of eye-catchingly short skirts (something that he said he found “offensive”), Egyptian culture condones the punishment of those unlucky enough to be caught saying the wrong thing – and that we ought to ‘tolerate’ that in the way that he tolerated mini-skirt-wearing women in London. We countered the official’s arguments as respectfully as possible, but our protestations that many Egyptians and Muslims supported Kareem’s cause fell on deaf ears. We gently reminded him that Egypt had signed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and that article 19 (section 2) of this covenant stated, rather unequivocally: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. We told him that the international community, as a result, was watching Egypt’s conduct with a critical eye – but he seemed unfazed.
Nonetheless, the official promised us that he would return to his office, read Kareem’s blog again and would consider the issue more fully. We thanked him repeatedly for coming out to speak to us, and we continue to hope that the arguments we made will help influence him and his colleagues to reconsider their position on the case.
The police, who were extremely helpful, were especially impressed at how “well-behaved” we were, and said that they had never seen an official come out to converse with protesters before. In the words of one of the officers, “it must have been the lack of intimidation that invited the embassy official to come down and speak to you. That is the only time that anyone I have spoke to have ever known that to happen.”
We got a piece placed in the LSE student paper (thank you, James!), some coverage on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’, as well as some interest from a Guardian reporter for a follow-up piece. All in all, a satisfactory rally, but as recent reports from Kareem’s lawyers reminds us, this battle is far from won…