This is the picture posted today on one of the front pages of the U.S. State Department website:
[The front page, here, has changing content — if this picture doesn’t turn up immediately, just enter the word “Egypt” in the search box on the opening page. The use of this photo is a real message — one of a series sent from Washington today.]
The U.S. has steadily firmed up its position over the past week on the need for a transition in Egypt — which it says should start now. Now, President Obama said on 1 February, after Husni Mubarak announced he would serve until the next scheduled elections in September. Now, the spokespersons of both the White House and the State Department said on 2 February. And, that was yesterday…
Also yesterday, a U.S. special envoy, former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner was recalled to Washington after a couple of days talk in Cairo, with Husni Mubarak and with his newly-named Vice President, Egypt’s Intelligence Chief General Omar Suleiman. There was no reason for him to stay, sources in Washington commented, after a horrendous day of attacks on protesters in Tahrir Square on Wednesday. Wisner is now briefing the administration in Washington.
Overnight, pitched battles continued in Tahrir Square. Protesters repetetively shouted “Ya Rab” (roughly equivalent to “Oh, God”), in unison, as a rallying cry as they rebuffed attacks. At around 4 am Thursday, there was an assault from snipers posted on the rooftops of surrounding buildings who shot at protestors with live fire. There were a number of deaths.
Thursday was marked by a coordinated campaign of attacks, arrests, confiscation of equipment and intimidation — conducted apparently by the military — against journalists + foreign journalists, and against international + Egyptian Human Rights workers.
Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork, who is in Cairo, told Al-Jazeera English that “it’s the government’s responsibility to protect the right to freedom of assembly, but this government has abjectly failed in this responsibility”. In fact, Stork said, there’s every reason to think that the government party has been behind the violent attacks on anti-Mubarak demonstrators in recent days, and he suggested that the role of the governing party is what we should be looking at — the Army, he said, is only part of this. “The Army role has been very ambiguous, very passive, and reflects the criminal negligence of the government”.
Stork said that one thing HRW would be “taking a very close look at now is what has been happening to those people who have been identified as organizers of the present protests, people like Ahmad Maher, who has been detained, one of the group who set up the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ page on Facebook”. Khaled Said, a 28-year-old blogger, was accosted by plainclothes policemen while sitting at a cafe in Alexandria, and was brutally beaten to death within hours, apparently in the entry halls of nearby buildings, and his bloodied and broken body was dumped not far away (see our earlier posts here).
The administrator of the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian national who works abroad as a marketing executive for Google, just happened to be in Egypt for a conference when the protests broke out. He was taken away by the police days ago, and has not been seen since. He is still missing.
On Thursday, State Department Spokesperson P.J. Crowley said at his regular daily press briefing that the detentions of journalists etc. “do not seem to be random events”. He did note that the U.S. Embassy has been “using its security officers” to make contacts with their Egyptian counterparts to keep track of what is happening and to gain their release.
A day earlier, P.J. Crowley made a clear distinction between the anti-Mubarak protestors and the pro-government mobs that suddenly rushed into Tahrir Square and mounted hours of sustained and deadly attacks on the protestors, who defended themselves.
Crowley stated Wednesday that “what’s imperative is that officials in Egypt heed what the Egyptian people are demanding. These are demonstrations that have been very compelling. These are demonstrations that underscore the aspirations – the unfulfilled aspirations, of the Egyptian people. And these demonstrators are not going away. This is gathering momentum. They are sending a clear message … let me differentiate between those who can bring forward their perspective on current events as opposed to the thugs that we saw on the streets today who have – clearly trying to intimidate those people who have been peacefully protesting and expressing their strong views about a different kind of future for Egypt”.
About the pro-government mobs, Crowley said: “we don’t know who unleashed these thugs on the streets of Cairo. They’ve been identified as supporters of the government. But whoever they are, they need – there needs to be accountability here. This was clearly an attempt at intimidating the protesters who have been communicating to the government and insisting on change”.
And, Crowley noted, “the violence today just underscores how urgent the situation is. The longer that this goes unresolved, the greater the danger of further violence”.
The newly-named Vice President, General Suleiman, said today that an investigation would be mounted into who was responsible for unleashing the pro-government mobs on Wednesday, and that they would be found and punished. He said he had been having a dialogue with the opposition, but it was not possible to determine who, exactly, he had been speaking to. Nor, by his own account in a later television interview, did it seem like much of a dialogue.
An Al-Jazeera reporter in Washington noted Thursday evening that while General Suleiman had called, today, for foreigners to stop giving advice to Egypt, the State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley later said that the U.S. is “continuing to give advice to our Egyptian partners about the demonstration tomorrow”, Friday. Protest organizers have been saying that Friday’s demonstrations would be Mubarak’s “Day of Departure”.
ABC TV news has today compiled + updated a list of “all the journalists who have been in some way threatened, attacked or detained while reporting in Egypt. When you put it all into one list, it is a rather large number in such a short period of time”. This list is published here.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has prepared which its own list, which is posted here.
Meanwhile, ABC’s Christiane Amanpour (formerly of CNN) was granted an interview with President Husni Mubarak today. According to reports, Mubarak told her that he wants to leave office — and is fed up after 62 years in public service — but, he said, if he resigns today, there’ll be chaos. Mubarak has, however, demonstrably failed to prevent chaos in the past ten days…
One of the commentors on Al-Jazeera English said tonight, however, that Mubarak said the same thing in 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Mubarak said then that he was only going to serve one term, in order to restore stability.
Later tonight, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We condemn in the strongest terms the attacks on reporters covering the situation in Egypt. This is a violation of international norms that guarantee freedom of the press and it is unacceptable under any circumstances”.
Clinton added “We also condemn in the strongest terms attacks on peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, foreigners, and diplomats”.
She noted that “freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press are pillars of an open and inclusive society. It is especially in times of crisis that governments must demonstrate their adherence to these universal values”.
And, Clinton said, “the Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists’ ability to report these events to Egypt and to the world”.