Louisa Abdel Karim, Rola El Khash and Lina El Tibi (Photo:Mai Shahin)
Four Syrian women have reached the seventh day of a hunger strike in front of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, in a bid to highlight the suffering of civilians caught up in Syria's 18- month old uprising.
Despite being largely ignored by Arab League officials, early Monday the United Nations and Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi stopped to speak to the strikers as he entered the building to attend a meeting with the league's Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi.
Lina Al-Tibi, one of the hunger strikers, reported via her Twitter account that Brahimi told the women they should stop their strike and invited them to lunch, while El-Arabi informed them that the league cannot impose a no-fly zone as "the decision-making countries are against it."
The four hunger strikers are actress Louisa Abdel-Karim, poet Al-Tibi and activists Rola Al-Khash and Salma Al-Gazayerly. They started the protest last Tuesday under the slogan of "save the children of Syria."
The women were inspired by a group of Syrian activists, mostly artists, who held similar protests in Paris and Amman. Their main demand is that the Egyptian government stops Iranian and Chinese military ships using the Suez Canal to transport weapons to Al-Assad’s troops.
The quartet has also been calling for the improvement of conditions for Syrian refugees in Egypt. In addition, they are demanding that the Egyptian government do more than just verbally condemn the actions of the Syrian regime.
During the last 17 months, around 23,000 civilians, including children, have been killed as Assad's troops continue to violently suppress the uprising. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has registered approximately 1,697 Syrian refugees in Egypt. However, the agency estimates that the actual number is significantly larger as many are unregistered. The amount of fleeing citizens entering Egypt increases every day as the violence escalates and as the treatment of refugees in Jordan and Turkey worsens.
Damascus-born activist and artist Abdel-Karim, who fled Syria eight months ago after becoming one of Assad regime's wanted activists, told Ahram Online on Thursday that the Arab League does not appear to be taking their initiative seriously.
She revealed that a group from the league's Women’s Committee met the four hunger strikers on Tuesday, the first day of their strike. "They took a copy of our demands but [last week] no other official spoke to us,” added Abdel-Karim, who featured in a play in Cairo about the Syrian revolt two months ago.
Al-Khash told Ahram Online that she was previously living in the UAE but came to Egypt as foreigners are banned from protesting in the Gulf country.
"I am here asking the Syrian mothers not to send their boys to kill other Syrians; brothers should not kill each other," El-Khash added as she sat on the ground outside the gates of the Arab League building.
Unlike the other women participating in the sit-in, Salma El-Gazayerly was not an activist before the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011.
"I am normal woman who is married to an Egyptian. When the Egyptian revolution started in January last year, I started to go to Tahrir Square, wishing that the same thing would happen in my country, which I left over 40 years ago," El Gazayerly told Ahram Online.
"When Syrians began to protest at the Syrian embassy [in Cairo] in 2011 I went along. I still go to protests and look after our refugees, I am not afraid anymore. Unlike before, I feel that I have a country now," she added in a perfect Syrian accent that has not changed despite living in Cairo for over 20 years.
"I am waiting for the day when Assad is gone and I will be able return back to Syria, my home, even on foot."
Well-known poet Al-Tibi, who was not available for comment, has been living in Cairo for several years and is renowned for being an outspoken anti-Assad activist.
Last Wednesday, when the Arab League held its ministerial meeting to discuss Syria’s latest development, the main event of the day was Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s speech that ended dramatically with his words “Syria, Syria." Morsi stated that, "We should help the Syrians avoid civil war and avert foreign military intervention… I tell the Syrian regime: there is still a chance to end the bloodshed. Now is the time for change."
The four striking women waited for the president at the Syrian protest tent by the headquarters holding banners stating their demands. Morsi did salute them on his way out but this, they explained to Ahram Online, was not what they wanted.
“We do not need more speeches,” Abdel-Karim said on the same day. “We need actions.”
There are concerns over the future and the safety of religious minority groups such the Alawites, leading to fear of sectarianism in Syria.
As an Alawite herself, Abdel-Karim told Ahram Online that she is not worried about sectarianism or jihadists in Syria. "These women in front of you at the sit-in represent the different sects in Syria," she said, explaining that the group includes an Alawite, Christian and Sunni Muslim.
"I used to go and protest in Damascus with Sunni women who covered me for fear that I would be identified and arrested. We are a very diverse nation made up of over 70 sects and ethnicities. The media does not know that there were Alawite army officers who defected and work now in relief activities,” Abdel Karim said, adding that the jihadists in Syria were not a threat to its diversity, "After all how many are there?"
The group is encouraging other Syrian women in Cairo and women worldwide to join them on a one-day hunger strike on 22 September, in support of Syrian children suffering in the conflict.