The US State Department yesterday condemned the excessive use of force by Egyptian security forces, strengthening its stance against the violence five days into the clashes that have killed at least 38 people, according to rights groups.
The shift comes after a Monday statement calling for restraint on “all sides,” without specifically condemning security forces. That provoked anger from Egyptian protesters, who have faced security forces shooting tear gas, rubber bullets, birdshot, and – according to field doctors – live ammunition. The protesters, who are armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails, are demanding that Egypt’s military rulers hand over power to a civilian government.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in Washington reiterated yesterday that the US is “very concerned” about the violence, but took a harder line against the military, which receives $1.3 billion in annual US aid.
“We condemn the excessive force used by the police, and we strongly urge the Egyptian Government to exercise maximum restraint, to discipline its forces, and to protect the universal rights of all Egyptians to peacefully express themselves,” she said. “While all parties in Egypt need to remain committed to nonviolence, we believe that the Egyptian government has a particular responsibility to restrain security forces and to allow the Egyptian people to peacefully express themselves.”
President Obama said the US would support democracy and oppose repression in the region after Egypt’s uprising, following 30 years of strong support for the repressive regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. But US officials have largely avoided public criticism of the military regime that took control after Mubarak, even as it has become increasingly repressive. This has angered some Egyptians.
Ms. Nuland also praised the concessions offered to protesters by military ruler Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi yesterday. “He said a number of things that Egyptians have been wanting to hear and have been needing reassurance on,” she said. But his speech failed to satisfy protesters, who chanted “Down with the Field Marshal” as news of his remarks filtered through the square.
Also on Tuesday, three Americans were arrested in Cairo and accused of joining in the protests by throwing Molotov cocktails at security forces. The three were study-abroad students at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
According to the university, the students are Derrik Sweeney of Georgetown University in Washington, Gregory Porter of Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Luke Gates of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. AUC spokeswoman Rehab Saad said the public prosecutor interviewed them yesterday, and that they were due to be interviewed again by a state security prosecutor today. They are being held at a public prosecutor’s office, she said.
Officials at the US Embassy in Cairo referred to a US State Department briefing held in Washington on the students. Nuland said yesterday that the embassy has been in contact with Egyptian authorities about three US citizens detained “in connection with the protests.” Officials expected to gain consular access to the three today, she said.
Suspicion of foreigners has become common since Egypt’s uprising, when state media fanned the flames of xenophobia in the regime’s attempt to blame outsiders for the unrest. Journalists have been repeatedly attacked, roughed up, or accused of being spies in recent months, and have sometimes been subject to “citizens arrest” by suspicious Egyptians.
A Twitter account that appeared to be that of Mr. Gates, listing Cairo as his location, included several posts about tear gas and participating in protests. “We were throwing rocks and one guy accidentally threw his phone,” said one post, before the account was apparently removed.