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Egyptian Protests Prove Difficult for Obama Administration

The protests in Egypt have captured the attention of the world. After Tunisia’s dictator fled the country in disgrace, now hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have joined their Tunisian counterparts on the streets, calling for the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. The images have been captivating. And the Egyptian security forces have responded with violence and arrest. At least 860 have been arrested in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere. Some are dead. Police are using clubs, armored vehicles and tear gas. They have beaten and arrested journalists reporting on the protests, to the extent that the Committee to Protect Journalists released this statement:

New York, January 26, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the violence against journalists covering demonstrations in Egypt. Plainclothes and uniformed security personnel have beaten at least 10 journalists between Tuesday and today and detained others. Egyptian authorities have also shut down the websites of two popular independent newspapers and a number of social media sites […]

“We call on Cairo to bring to an immediate end all forms of violence against the media, release all detained journalists, and lift online censorship,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

A good roundup of the protests is at Monsters and Critics. Some great reporting by Egyptian bloggers here.

Zaid Jilani asks whether the President supports the democratic impulses of the Egyptian protests. He expressed support for the Tunisian people in the State of the Union yesterday, but Egypt is an ally of the US government and receives lots of government aid.

One nation that has been mostly silent during these demonstrations is the United States. This is particularly important given that the United States is a close economic, political, and military ally to the Egyptian government, which receives nearly $2 billion annually in aid from the United States. Given these facts, the United States has leverage over the Egyptian government and could exert pressure that would help hasten a transition to a more democratic Egypt.

The one major statement that U.S. government officials have made about the situation from Egypt came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Clinton said. “We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence.” Former IAEA director and Egyptian human rights activist Mohamed El-Baradei responded to Clinton’s comments during an appearance on CNN International this morning. He said he was “stunned” by Clinton’s words and said that Egypt’s “basis” for stability was on “29 years of martial law.”

Clinton changed her tune somewhat today, with her and the American ambassador asking the Egyptian government to allow peaceful demonstrations and to open access to communications hubs and social media sites. The White House will have to figure out a response strategy quickly. They either believe in democracy and liberty or they believe in realpolitik. They don’t have a lot of time to make the choice.

P.S.: Those researchers didn’t predict this level of political violence in Egypt in their model.

UPDATE: I forgot that the Press Secretary did weigh in on Egypt. Here:

As we monitor the situation in Egypt, we urge all parties to refrain from using violence, and expect the Egyptian authorities to respond to any protests peacefully. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals.

More broadly, what is happening in the region reminds us that, as the President said in Cairo, we have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and free of corruption; and the freedom to live as you choose – these are human rights and we support them everywhere.

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David Dayen

David Dayen