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