Heads of state and foreign ministers from around the world are making their way to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, for Yasser Arafat’s funeral service. For several days officials have been making quiet preparations for the arrival of his coffin and Friday’s ceremony.
Egypt, which hosts the Arab League headquarters, has been a regular mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In parliament this morning, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak called for a minute’s silence to honour the man he described as a brave defender of justice and a man who strove towards peace. A mosque close to Cairo International Airport has been chosen as a venue for where people can pay their last respects. Lying outside the city centre, access can be easily restricted to limit a likely outpouring of popular emotion as this weekend marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The decision to hold the funeral in Cairo has been widely welcomed by Egyptians. Not only did Arafat have strong political ties with the leadership, he lived in Cairo for much of his youth and studied at its university, where he first became politically active. Most of his biographies say he was born in the city, although Arafat himself said he was born in Jerusalem.
A ceremony in Egypt also makes attendance much easier for some Arab ministers who refuse to travel to the West Bank until an independent Palestinian state is established. At the same time, Israel will not allow Arab leaders whom it considers terrorists to enter the region.
After tomorrow’s funeral, Arafat’s body will be flown to Ramallah to be buried at the Muqata, his West Bank headquarters to which he was confined by Israeli forces for the last three years. What was once his prison will soon become a shrine to a man seen as symbolising the struggle for an independent Palestinian state.
Arafat will be laid to rest in a concrete coffin in the hope that one day he may be moved to Jerusalem.