Obama Pressed to Pressurise Egypt’s Military

On the eve of massive planned protests dubbed "Day of Departure" in Egypt, continuing attacks by pro-government conspirators on anti-government protestors and roundups of human rights activists and foreign journalists are contributing to pressures on the administration of President Barack Obama to take a tougher line, including withholding military aid, toward the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

During a phone call between U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and his Egyptian counterpart Omar Suleiman Thursday, Washington’s number two "stressed that the Egyptian government is responsible for ensuring that peaceful demonstrations don’t lead to violence and intimidation," according to a statement released by the White House. 

Calls for slashing Cairo’s military aid are becoming more compelling as the role of the armed forces has become increasingly ambiguous. Early in the week, the Army was largely seen as being on the side of the demonstrators, pledging to protect the citizens of Egypt. 

But when nine days of peaceful protests plunged into violence Wednesday, the Army reportedly stood by as pro-government protestors attacked peaceful demonstrators with sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails in and around Tahrir Square. And Thursday, human rights organizations and media agencies reported the systematic arrests of their personnel by military police. 

Worrying Developments 

Rights groups say that at approximately 2:30pm local time, a raid of their offices resulted in the arrest of eight individuals, including Ahmed Seif, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and Khaled Ali, director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights. 

"We are extremely worried about the fate of these human rights defenders who have been providing critical legal aid and support to their people over the past days of protest," said Catherine Essoyan, Oxfam Regional Manager for the Middle East and Maghreb in a statement. "We call for the safe and immediate release of those detained." 

Meanwhile, foreign journalists are reporting that they are being targeted, assaulted, beaten and detained without provocation. Most of those arrested are released after a few hours, but some, like the Washington Post‘s Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel and photographer Linda Davidson, remain in custody. 

According to CBS, about two-dozen reporters have been arrested between Wednesday and Thursday, as of late Thursday morning Eastern Standard Time. 

"[T]he systematic targeting of journalists in Egypt… is also completely and totally unacceptable. Any journalist that has been detained should be released immediately," U.S. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday. "We continue to call for restraint and nonviolence." 

"I can’t imagine that, basically, kidnappings of American journalists working for prominent American media outlets are done without the knowledge and probably active complicity of the Army," Chris Toensing, director of the Middle East Research and Information Project, told IPS. 

Time reports that warrants for the arrest of international journalists were issued by Egypt’s Ministry of Defense. In an interview aired on state television Thursday, Suleiman blamed rogue elements and foreign operatives for the protests’ descent into violence, perhaps fueling these attacks and detentions. 

Human rights activists on the ground are worried about the implications of such roundups. Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, warned Democracy Now! Thursday of impending catastrophe, as further mass protests are planned for Friday. 

"[W]hat is causing the biggest alarm today is that there seems to be a series of attempts by the Army itself, for the first time, of going after foreign journalists and going after human rights organizations, both Egyptian and foreign," Baghat said. 

"And with the lack of access to Tahrir Square, we fear that the worst is about to happen and that there is something that the Army does not want anyone from the outside world to witness." 

At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Thursday, Bahey al-Din Hassan, considered to be the father of Egypt’s human rights movement, painted a picture of fracture and discord in the military structure. 

"Today marks the appearance of a new party: the military police," al-Din Hassan announced, referring to their reported involvement in the arrests of human rights activists and journalists. "This is the first time they’ve been so involved." 

"No one knows who controls what and whom," he said. "It seems there is no consistent coordination between military police, security police and the armed militia… This is worrying." 

Clamping the Military Aid Pipeline 

"One of the things the Egyptian military values most is its relationship with the U.S. military," Neil Hicks, advisor for Human Rights First and expert on the Egyptian human rights movement, told IPS. "That is an interest that we can use." 

In a statement released here Thursday, the non-partisan Working Group on Egypt, members of which met with senior White House officials earlier this week, called for Washington to "immediately freeze all military assistance to Egypt" if violence against unarmed demonstrators continues. 

The Group, whose membership spans much of the political spectrum in the foreign-policy establishment, also called on Obama to press Mubarak to leave the presidency well before next September’s presidential elections; the time he had set – and Obama subsequently appeared to endorse – in his speech Tuesday night. 

"[I]t is the Working Group’s conclusion that the sooner Mubarak leaves office, the sooner Egypt can begin a peaceful transition to a democratic government that respects human rights," the Group stated. 

"The United States government should affirm the urgency of this transition by explicitly stating that, after today’s violence, it is clear that Mubarak has no place in a process leading to meaningful change," the Group, which ranges from former President George W. Bush’s chief Mideast aide, Elliott Abrams to Brian Katulis, a Mideast specialist at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank close to the more-liberal sectors of the administration. 

"The administration needs to fire all the bullets it has right now, without delay," the Group’s co-chair, Robert Kagan, like Abrams, a prominent neo-conservative, currently based at the Brookings Institution, told ‘Politico’, adding that the administration should make a "public call for Mubarak to leave, in light of the violence." 

"And cut-off of all military assistance within days if the violence continues. There’s nothing left to save it for. Mubarak is going for broke," he added. 

The Group’s appeal was joined by several independent analysts who have generally supported the past week’s slowly-slowly approach to the massive anti-government demonstrations that have engulfed Cairo and other Egyptian cities over the past nine days. 

"[T]he time has come for the Obama administration to escalate to the next step of actively trying to push Mubarak out," wrote Marc Lynch, a Mideast specialist on his much- read blog at foreignpolicy.com Thursday morning. "They were right not to do so earlier, …[but] yesterday’s orgy of state-sanctioned violence should be the moment to make clear that there is now no alternative." 

"[The administration] must now make clear that an Egyptian regime headed by Hosni Mubarak is no longer one with which the United States can do business, and that a military which sanctions such internal violence is not one with which the United States can continue to partner," added Lynch, who participated in the White House meeting last Monday. 

Pressure to cut military aid, which amounts to approximately 1.3 million dollars and comprises about one-third of Egypt’s defense budget, is also mounting in Congress. Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the subcommittee that controls the foreign assistance budget, told media outlets Wednesday that he would sever Cairo’s funding if Mubarak remains in power and the regime-sanctioned violence continues. 

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.