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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Calls on Egypt to Enact Reforms as Middle East Takes to the Streets *updated*

January 27, 2011

Perhaps due to criticism from all sides or perhaps due to the fact that the administration seems to have been caught slightly off guard by the events spreading throughout the Arab world, the State Dept. has finally sharpened it’s criticism of the Egyptian government’s crackdown on protesters:

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has said that widespread anti-government protests over poverty and government repression in Egypt represent an opportunity for the 30-year administration of president Hosni Mubarak to implement “political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people”.

In unusually blunt remarks regarding the longtime US ally, delivered on Wednesday, Clinton also said that the Mubarak government should not prevent peaceful protests or block social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook, which have helped Egyptians plan and spread news about the unrest.

The Egyptian government has reportedly been doing both: Security forces continued to confront protesters with batons, tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets on Wednesday night, and Facebook and Twitter have both acknowledged ongoing disturbances to their services in Egypt.

Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police in Cairo, Al Jazeera’s Dan Nolan reported from the capital, while similar petrol bomb attacks were reported in the eastern Red Sea port city of Suez, where three protesters died on Tuesday.

On one occasion in Cairo, a car pulled to a stop behind a police truck, but one of the occupants missed the truck with his throw and struck a nearby pillar, setting it alight. Some protesters in a crowd of around 100 at Egypt’s foreign ministry also threw petrol bombs, Nolan said.

“The streets of Cairo behind me tonight are a very tense and a very chaotic and a very dramatic place to be,” Nolan said.

Social media shut down, clashes in Suez

In Suez, severe fighting was reported between police and protesters. A crowd used petrol bombs to set fire to a government building and attempted unsuccessfully to do the same to a local office of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Medical personnel in Suez reported on Wednesday night that 55 protesters and 15 police officers had been injured.

“Protesters throwing burning bottle bomb into one armored police car, setting it ablaze,” read one tweet sent by Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights, who was in Suez.

“Police descends onto the streets and [are] not remaining impartial. [They have] injured about 30 protesters so far,” he wrote in another.

In Cairo, protests were sporadic, but hundreds still took to the streets.

Around 500 people were protesting on the steps and roof of the lawyers union in central Cairo earlier, chanting anti-government slogans, with another 500 listening and watching from the street, Nolan said.

Thousands of riot police “flooded the street” and used batons to clear out the observing crowds whenever they came too close or grew too large, our correspondent said.

Lacking reliable access to social media, protesters have relied on word of mouth and mobile phones to coordinate their demonstrations, Nolan said.

Twitter confirmed that its services had been blocked in Egypt beginning at 6 pm local time (1600 GMT) on Tuesday, while Jillian York, who oversees the Herdict web monitoring service at Harvard University, said that Egyptian Facebook users confirmed to her that the website was blocked.

Protests in Egypt

Foreign policy wonk Steve Clemmons has said that State Dept. officials (speaking on condition of anonymity) have no “Plan B” should Mubarak’s government fall. For their part, the Israeli government, who relies on Egypt for various kinds of non-monetary support, is downplaying the events in the hopes that the Mubarak regime will remain intact because Egypt is one of Israel’s few allies in the region. The NYT has more on the Israel angle here.

The reality is that the administration is in a very difficult spot and the whole world is watching. We want stability in the region, even if that comes at the price of less democracy and freedom. Sure, we would like Mubarak and others to enact reforms and move towards a democratic system but that often doesn’t happen without some sort of upheaval or unifying incident- for example, the relatively peaceful (all things considered) ouster of Tunisia’s President (even though he ultimately left voluntarily). Everyone is keenly aware that the United States not only has to talk the talk, but walk the walk on democracy promotion. The fear is that if friendly, albeit, corrupt and dictatorial, Arab regimes fall they could be replaced with persons or groups hostile to US (and Israel’s) interests. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. From a purely political perspective, the State Dept. and White House need to get in front of this issue and fast and be proactive instead of reactive.

In fairness to this administration, this stability over democracy meme is long-standing US policy, not something that is unique to the Obama administration. And remember, Secretary Clinton herself seemed to presage eventual upheaval in repressive regimes while she was speaking in Doha, Qatar urging more rapid reforms:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has told a forum of Arab leaders in Qatar to enact economic and political reforms or face increased unrest and extremism.

Clinton spoke Thursday in the capital, Doha, as she wrapped up a four-nation tour of the Persian Gulf.

The top U.S. diplomat said if leaders do not offer young people “meaningful ways to contribute,” then others are ready to fill the void.

Clinton said extremists and terrorist groups “who would prey on desperation and poverty” are already appealing for influence.

She also called for an end to corruption and for increased economic opportunities for women and minorities.

Clinton said the “new and dynamic Middle East” needs a firmer foundation in order to grow.
[emphasis mine]

Not unsurprisingly, the young have turned up in the tens of thousands to protest Mubarak in Egypt.

And then there is Yemen. Who would have thought just weeks ago that there would be anti-government protests in Yemen of all places?:

Tens of thousands of people called for the Yemeni president’s ouster in protests across the country on Thursday inspired by the popular revolt in Tunisia.

The demonstrations led by opposition members and youth activists are a significant expansion of the unrest sparked by the Tunisian uprising, which also inspired Egypt’s largest protests in years. They pose a new threat to the stability of the Arab world’s most impoverished nation, which has become the focus of increased Western concern about a resurgent al-Qaida branch, a northern rebellion and a secessionist movement in the south.

The largest demonstrations took place in the capital of Sanaa, where crowds in four parts of the city shut down streets and chanted slogans calling for an end to the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for nearly 32 years.

“We will not accept anything less than the president leaving,” said independent parliamentarian Ahmed Hashid.

Similar anti-government protests took place in the southern provinces of Dali and Shabwa where riot police used batons to disperse the demonstrators. In al-Hudaydah province, an al-Qaida stronghold along the Red Sea coast, thousands took to the streets demanding the end of Saleh’s rule.

Opposition leaders called for more demonstrations on Friday.

“We’ll only be happy when we hear the words ‘I understand you’ from the president,” Hashid said, invoking a statement issued by Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before he fled the country.
Story continues below

Saleh has tried to defuse simmering tensions by raising salaries for the army and by denying opponents’ claims he plans to install his son as his successor.

After the Tunisian turmoil, he ordered income taxes slashed in half and instructed his government to control prices. He deployed anti-riot police and soldiers to several key areas in Sanaa and its surroundings to prevent riots.

And with respect to the Palestine Papers which the mainstream US media continues to downplay if not in some instances outright ignore, next time you hear someone say “but how can Israel negotiate when they have no partner in peace and won’t acknowledge our right to exist” you can remind them of this and also remind them that the Palestinians and the Arab League have been more than willing to sign peace treaties with Israel upon a just resolution of the conflict and the PA has already recognized Israel’s right to exist. It turns out the Palestinians were more than willing to concede a great deal in order to end the Occupation. Time to move past the AIPAC talking points and demand that the US be a more objective broker in this process.

Now, read this story and somebody tell me how it can be justified on any front and how in the world actions such as those described do anything other than inspire hatred and contempt? It is to the great credit of most Palestinians that rather than responding with guns, they are merely responding with their voices and their prayers. But are we listening?

UPDATE: Not Assistant Secretary PJ Crowley’s (State Dept. spokesperson) finest hour:

[h/t Taylor Marsh]

As an aside, agree with him or not, that interviewer could teach our MSM a thing or two about how to ask probing questions of those in power. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and I take no delight in watching PJ squirm but there is no doubt the interviewer is doing his job- really, really well.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Tani permalink
    January 27, 2011 2:37 pm

    Thank you for those great links. I agree that the US needs to get behind their words more. It would seem that the US has been calling for non-violence in the middle east for years but then when it happens the US seems caught totally off guard.

    That video you linked to of the demolition of those houses is terrible. There is no coverage of any of that! I don’t know if I could say that if I were in that family’s shoes that I would respond peacefully. Don’t people have rights?

  2. Thain permalink
    January 27, 2011 2:54 pm

    The criticism of the US is getting louder in the international media. It should be an interesting press briefing at the State dept. today.

    That link to mondoweiss in your post and the destruction of those homes is a war crime. How can any state justify just coming in one day and bulldozing homes, destroying everything in it and rendering people including lots of children homeless so they have to sleep in tents in winter? There is NOTHING that Israel does that isn’t brutal, repressive and violent. They are incapable of dealing with ordinary unarmed, peaceful Palestinians with anything other than hatred, violence and contempt but yet it’s the ISRAELIS who claim to currently be the victims of terrible, terrible treatment and hatred. They should look in the damn mirror once in a while.

  3. Tovah permalink
    January 27, 2011 3:23 pm

    Great coverage as usual Stacy. Thanks for reminding everyone that Secretary Clinton actually warned of this possibility for upheaval and conflict if some Arab states didn’t change their way of doing things. I just don’t think she or anyone else realized how quickly it would happen.

    I think Wiki and some of the other things that have been released lately are playing a role in this and the internet and social media is helping to get the word out. China and Saudi Arabia must be shaking in their boots right now although China has much more of an ability to control the populace. In the Palestinian territories they have been protesting the PA because of what was revealed in the Palestine Papers. I’m sort of amazed that the US can just refuse to talk about what’s in the Papers. I read that the State Dept. said that they wouldn’t comment on anything in them but that seems sort of like a cop out.

    • Steve permalink
      January 27, 2011 4:48 pm

      Yeah, that is depressing. Could the US be any more condescending to the Palestinians? Probably.

      Did you see this about Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren discussing the Palestine Papers?:

      “I don’t think that the Wikileaks or Palileaks prove that they [the Palestinians] were willing to make peace with us,” he said. “In fact, there were major issues there that they weren’t willing to concede like Ma’ale Adumim and no Israel government – right, left, center – is going to give up Ma’ale Adumim. It’s a huge suburb of Jerusalem. But the fact of the matter is at the end of the day — and this you will hear from all the participants, particularly from Condoleezza Rice who went to the Middle East 26 times to try to mediate this – it was Abu Mazen that turned the deal down.

      Un-fucking-believable. You know, the Jewish community loves this guy and I would love to know why all of a sudden the Jewish community is in radio silence about the Palestine Papers? I should go ask my Rabbi, who loves to wax angelic about the importance of supporting Israel in all things, because you know, we’re Jewish and all. Christ.

  4. tiffy permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:19 pm

    I thought the secretary’s response on the Egypt crisis is appropriate and in a timely manner. Her statements about government reforms and let people protest were made yesterday, not today. Some people accuse the US for not doing more, and it seems they want the US to overthrow the current regime. The US can NOT overthrow a government in a sovereign state, whether it’s her ally Egypt or her enemy Iran.

    • January 27, 2011 6:28 pm

      I don’t think anyone expects the US to overthrow the government and yes, the State Dept. came out with stronger language yesterday during the press portion of her bilaterals. However, there was a good deal of criticism of the administration’s somewhat belated response to events in Tunisia and its tepid reaction [initially] to the Egyptian govt cracking heads on the streets in Cairo. As I said in the post, it’s important to stay out in front of these things and not be so reactive although I realize things are happening quickly.

      I fully acknowledged in the post that the US is in a very difficult spot for a variety of reasons and in all likelihood the Arab countries don’t want the US toppling regimes for them. That said, when we talk about democracy promotion we need to make clear at all times that that goes not only for our enemies (N. Korea, Iran, etc.) but also for our allies as well. We give Egypt tons of money and we most certainly can have some strings attached. I also tried to make clear today and earlier in the week that this stability-over-democracy theme is long-standing US policy and not just something that the Obama admin. dreamed up recently so we have to keep that in mind.

      I know we have to be careful and not be seen as meddling in these countries- that goes for Iran too- we can’t ignore the fact that many Arabs see the US as part of the problem to begin with- they see us as propping up these corrupt regimes for our own reasons even though it means total repression for the average citizens. But when we go around telling other select countries to hold “free and fair elections” they see hypocrisy in our words and actions and it erodes our credibility. Also, with democracy comes to possibility of people being elected we don’t like and that is part of the reason why we support these regimes. That inconsistency is also noted by the so-called Arab Street.

      I have always argued for more consistency in our human rights, pro-democracy approach although I know some people see that as unreaslistic.

    • rachel permalink
      January 27, 2011 6:43 pm

      I somewhat agree with you. I am sure there are cries for the U.S. to mind it’s own buisness.

  5. tiffy permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:27 pm

    Forgot to add, the US cannot overthrow a government unless she’s willing to go to war.

  6. Steve permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:41 pm

    But why do we call for democratic, free and fair elections in some countries (Iran, Cuba etc.) but not others? I think that’s the question. It would be a disaster for the US to do regime change IN ANY COUNTRY IN THE REGION (including Iran although many GOP and those in the Lobby are advocating just that) but I think what people want is what stacy said above- some consistency in our approach rather than cherry picking who should be held accountable for torture, maintaining dictatorships, human rights violations and cracking down on peaceful protests.

    It’s also worth noting in my opinion that we seem to pull out the “well, it’s a sovereign state we can’t force them to do anything” rationale only when we are dealing with problematic allies like Egypt and even Israel. But when it’s someone we either don’t like (Iran) or whom we have power over (the Palestinians) we’ll go to almost any lengths (sanctions, UN resolutions, withholding funds or threats of withholding funds) to make our point. Isn’t that a bit of a double standard?

  7. Tovah permalink
    January 27, 2011 8:12 pm

    I agree with pretty much everything that has been said.

    I think Stacy is going out of her way to be even-handed and present the different views being expressed.

    I think people are not being realistic if they think the average Arab citizen wants the US to push their leaders out of power- I think THEY want to do it themselves. They do seem to want the US to stop providing these regimes with the tools both military and otherwise, to repress them.

    • January 27, 2011 8:30 pm

      Agreed. I know it’s tempting to scream at our govt “do something to get rid of Mubarak!” but as you said, any real govt change has to be undertaken by the people, not some foreign power. This situation is even more difficult b/c the Egyptian people know the US has long backed the dictatorship to begin with. So for us to assume the Egyptians want an American solution doesn’t make sense. But of course that doesn’t mean we can’t speak out strongly against Mubarak’s oppressive tactics and encourage reform – and perhaps even remind him about how US taxpayers may be less generous moving forward.

      I read an article about how an Egyptian protester picked up a spent gas canister that had been fired at them- it was American made apparently- and he said “the Americans and Israel are good at destroying things.”

      That probably sums up how they are feeling about us right about now.

  8. January 27, 2011 8:38 pm

    It is up to Egyptians at this point. If enough people rise up, Mubarak will be toppled – regardless of the billions of dollars of US support we send him every year. Tomorrow, Friday, should be very interesting in Egypt. Major protests are anticipated. The Guardian is doing a great job covering everything.

    The US loses credibility and is viewed as hypocritical when we back some dictators to the hilt while preaching about democracy on the global stage. The genie is out of the bottle in the Middle East, and none of us knows where this will end. I personally think, that as the US likes to preach, all people deserve the right to express themselves politically. And that includes people in the Middle East.

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