State Dept. condemns Egypt violence

Here's the State Dept. statement on today's violence in Cairo and the general worsening political situation. Incidentally, a US embassy employee (an Egyptian) was briefly detained during the violence today. And here's a Reuters report on the statement. Why was a statement made today and not earlier? I have no idea. Maybe the statement was coming but took time to formulate. Or maybe today's violence and a string of articles in prominent international publications on the ongoing situation pushed the State Dept. to act, especially as some commentators have been highlighting the US' official aloofness from this whole issue. There has also been some discussion in Congress recently of cutting or re-allocating US aid to Egypt, something for which there has been steadily growing support for in both houses over the past 2-3 years. Take this bill that calls for the prohibition of US military aid for example. It's the State Dept. and the White House that have been fighting off this kind of action for the last few years in favor of a more supportive (for the regime) form of pressure. I find it interesting that McCormack, State's spokesman, mentioned this threat in his statement, although he also stressed that the current policy was unchanged -- i.e. no threat from the executive on current funding levels or funding allocation (which is in any case mostly governed by international agreement under Camp David and thus hard to change without all the parties' consent.) He also stressed that Egypt was a "good friend" of the US. The message remains muddled in terms of what consequences there might be to Washington's displeasure at the current situation.

Incidentally, going to through the Q&A at the press conference, I think McCormack finds a Mubarak supporter in Barry Schweid, the notoriously pro-Israel AP State Dept. correspondent. If you look at the passage involving a "Barry" (the last name is never mentioned, so perhaps it's not Schweid), "Barry" is quoted as saying "Yeah, but you're calling for a dialogue and there are people in Sardis who would like to overthrow the government and are far less democratic than it is to..." I looked up what "Sardis" was and it turns out to be a Biblical reference in Revelations, whose meaning is meant to indicate that "people in Sardis" are not trustworthy. A rather odd and learned choice of analogy.

Anyway, here's the part of the briefing that concerns Egypt:


MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon. I have one opening statement, then we can get right into the questions. This regards the repression of demonstrators in Egypt.

We are deeply concerned by reports of Egyptian Government arrests and repression of demonstrators protesting election fraud and calling for an independent judiciary. Particularly troubling are reports of Egyptian police tactics against demonstrators and journalists covering the event that left many injured. We urge the Egyptian Government to permit peaceful demonstrations on behalf of reform and civil liberties by those exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

We are also troubled by reports that the periods of detention of many of those arrested have been extended and that security-related charges have been filed against them. We have noted our serious concern about the path of political reform and democracy in Egypt and actions such as these are incongruous with the Egyptian Government's professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society. We will be following up with the Egyptian Government regarding our concerns and will continue to push for political reform and freedom of speech and press. We support the rights of Egyptians and people throughout the Middle East to peacefully advocate for democracy and political reform.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) with whom you would have the Egyptian Government conduct a dialogue? Or are you using the term, dialogue, just meaning --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah. These are --

QUESTION: Normal discourse?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, these were public, peaceful demonstrations, Barry, in terms of --

QUESTION: Yeah, but you're calling for a dialogue and there are people in Sardis who would like to overthrow the government and are far less democratic than it is to --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, if you're referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, Barry, it is under the Egyptian Constitution that is a group that is not allowed to be. The Egyptian Constitution says that any -- there should not be any political parties that are based on religion. That's the Egyptian Constitution. Now in terms of how the Egyptian people organize themselves politically, that is for them to decide and for them to look at their laws and their constitution to decide whether or not they have it right.

But the underlying issue here, Barry, is whether or not people can peacefully protest, express freely their thoughts, their feelings about actions that their government has taken. That's what the issue here is. And unfortunately, we witnessed today the fact that these demonstrations were broken up with violence and there were people who were injured, including reporters who were trying to cover these demonstrations. So as I said, it's a real source of concern. We're going to be following up with the Egyptian Government.

QUESTION: I got all the speech.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right.

Sue.

QUESTION: Are you noticing a pattern of repression here, because the Emergency Law was reintroduced or extended? You've got these public demonstrations that don't seem to be able to go ahead unfettered. I mean, you're the biggest donor to Egypt, giving monstrous amounts of money every year. Do you think it's time to revisit whether you're getting bang for your buck?

MR. MCCORMACK: There's been a lot of discussion up on Capitol Hill over the past couple of years concerning the United States aid packages and monies that go to the Government of Egypt. We have, over the past couple years, when this topic has come up, supported the continuance of that aid at the amounts that we have, consistent with our past practice -- at levels that are consistent with our past practice and also in terms of areas of disbursement that are consistent with our past practice. And that continues to be our position, Sue.

That said, there are very clearly concerns on the part of our government in the Executive Branch about several of the issues that you brought up. But we just talked today about the protests and the use of violence to break up peaceful protests. These were people who were very concerned about the Egyptian Government's actions with respect to some judges. And the root of that issue was an independent judiciary; whether or not there would be an independent judiciary in Egypt that could oversee implementation of election laws. So that was the root issue.

You mentioned the emergency law. We talked about our great concern that the emergency law had been extended. President Mubarak, during the presidential campaign, had talked about the fact that he would seek to get new laws passed by the Egyptian Parliament that would deal specifically with addressing the threat of terrorism, which is very real to the Egyptian people. We understand that. But at the same time, taking into consideration the fundamental need for freedom of expression; that hasn't been done yet. I know that there are plans to do so over the next couple years. But we had hoped that the Egyptian Government would have used that time between the elections and when they made that announcement to actually move forward on that front.

So Egypt is a good friend. Egypt is a good ally. We have a lot of common issues that we're working on together in terms -- certainly in fighting terrorism, certainly in trying to bring peace to the Middle East. That said, when there are issues that arise like we have seen today, we are going to speak out very plainly about them and that's what friends do. And we're going to be following up with the Egyptian Government on today's events and we would hope that the Egyptian Government would come out and make it very clear that there is support for and the ability to peacefully express views concerning government actions in Egypt.

QUESTION: So just to follow up, you are not then sort of revisiting the aid issue and whether you should be withdrawing some aid or making aid more conditional on progress on reform?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, like I said, Sue, this has been a topic I know that has come up on Capitol Hill. There's a lot of discussion on Capitol Hill and the foreign governments also need to understand that there are -- the relationship between the government, the legislative and the executive, and the role of the legislative in apportioning funding for these kind of programs. We have, in the past, and currently do support continued disbursement of that aid at the levels at which we have proposed, which is fairly consistent over the past several years, and disbursement of that aid to allocations broken down between military and nonmilitary items.

Sylvie.

QUESTION: You said you are going to follow up. Does the Secretary plan to call President Mubarak?

MR. MCCORMACK: There are no plans at this point to do that. If something that like that should occur, we’ll certainly keep you up to date. But I would expect that people at our embassy, as well as in our Near Eastern Bureau, would be following up with Egyptian officials, both in Cairo as well as in Washington.

Teri.

QUESTION: I just wanted -- several times that the U.S. has been concerned about these things in the past few months, why doesn't it warrant a phone call from the Secretary, since apparently, the Egyptian Government is not getting -- not getting the message or not deciding on its own either that these -- this behavior is inappropriate?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, Teri, we have followed up with senior Egyptian officials at very high levels regarding these issues and I expect that it will be a source of continuing discussion between the United States and Egypt and I would expect that at high levels as well. Secretary Rice has had an opportunity to visit with President Mubarak in Egypt several times. If she thinks that a phone call is the right thing to do, then of course, she won't hesitate to pick up the phone. But we want to work with the Egyptian Government in ways that we think and they think are the most effective to actually further everybody's shared objective here and that is the promotion of greater freedoms and bringing more voices into the Egyptian political process so that they can peacefully express their points of view.

QUESTION: Do you think they've been effective so far?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, frankly, Teri, we'd like to see some action on a variety of different fronts. We've talked about the emergency law. We've talked about the ability of people to be able to protest and express themselves freely and in a peaceful manner. So we would hope that the Egyptian Government would follow up on those things.

QUESTION: And was there an opportunity for Secretary Rice to speak privately at all with the Egyptian Foreign Minister when he visited New York or --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, there wasn't an opportunity after those meetings. We were scheduled really back-to-back.
This AP story has an interesting headline and intro...
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.