Pogrom in Cairo – Where Was Obama?

Contrary to what we were led to believe – that the US-backed and US-financed Egyptian military would protect the right to peaceful protest – on Wednesday, February 2, in Cairo, the Egyptian military permitted “Mubarak supporters” – who, according to press reports, were clearly organized by the government, and many of whom were police or other government employees – to physically attack peaceful antigovernment protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The lede paragraph of the main New York Times article summarized what happened:

The Egyptian government struck back at its opponents on Wednesday, unleashing waves of pro-government provocateurs armed with clubs, stones, rocks and knives in and around Tahrir Square in a concerted effort to rout the protesters who have called for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s near-30-year rule.

Crucially, the US-backed and US-financed Egyptian military did not block the violence. The chronology on The Guardian’s liveblog from Wednesday shows that the first report of government complicity in the violence at Tahrir Square came almost immediately:

12.19pm: “There is a fight of some kind of going on right in front of me. I’m assuming that it’s pro and anti Mubarak supporters,” Peter Beaumont reports from Tahrir Square.

The security services are just sitting on their tanks watching, he says. “You can’t help feeling that it has all been heavily coordinated,” he says. [Emphasis added.]

Is the word “pogrom” appropriate to describe what happened yesterday in Cairo? There wasn’t a significant ethnic component to the attack (although, The Guardian reported, “One pro-Mubarak supporter yelled ‘liars and Jews’ at journalists.”). The scale of destruction wasn’t anything like the most notorious pogroms of the late Tsarist period, although the word “pogrom” came into use in Tsarist Russia much earlier and originally described attacks in which few, if any, people were killed.

But there was a classic feature of pogroms in Tsarist Russia which matches what happened yesterday in Cairo, and which wasn’t captured by misleading headlines that talked about “clashes between Mubarak supporters and anti-government protesters”: complicity of authorities responsible for security with a premeditated attack by an armed mob against people who were not armed.

The Jewish Encyclopedia notes:

Soon after Alexander III had ascended the throne, anti-Jewish riots (Pogromy) broke out…. It was clear that the riots were premeditated…. To give but one example – a week before the pogrom of Kiev broke out, Von Hubbenet, chief of police of Kiev, warned some of his Jewish friends of the coming riots. Appeals to the authorities for protection were of no avail.[Emphasis added.]

Why did the Egyptian military, which has been the recipient of billions of dollars in US military aid and which is described in press reports as very close to the US government, allow the attack on antigovernment protesters to proceed? Where was the Obama administration? Why didn’t they respond to appeals to stop the violence?

It’s important to note in this regard that:

  1. The violence went on for many hours.
  2. The complicity of the US-backed Egyptian military in the violence was immediately apparent to Western journalists at Tahrir Square, who reported what they were observing as it was happening.
  3. Because Western journalists were reporting live on the web, this information about the complicity of the Egyptian military in the violence was immediately available to anyone who wanted it.
  4. US officials have claimed that that they were monitoring the situation closely; a reasonable minimum standard for any US official who claims to be “monitoring the situation closely” is that they know what Western journalists are reporting.
  5. Antigovernment protesters and others appealed immediately to the Egyptian military and to the Obama administration to stop the violence.

Some people would apparently have us believe that it was beyond the power of the Obama administration to stop the violence because the leverage of the Obama administration on the Egyptian military was limited.

“Egypt street violence: Few options for Obama administration,” the Christian Science Monitor reports.

The real story is this: there’s a split in Washington between people who are arguing that the US should be prioritizing democracy and human rights and people who are arguing that the US should be prioritizing “geostrategic interests.” (“U.S. lawmakers differ on aid cutoff to Egypt,” Reuters reports.) And the Obama administration is trying to triangulate between these two camps.

Of course, some folks are also arguing that people who care about “geostrategic interests” and can see past their noses should realize that cooperating in trying to block democracy in Egypt could eventually lead to a much more anti-US Egyptian government than could promoting an orderly transition to a democratic government in which people who oppose specific US policies in the region will have a voice – rather than being imprisoned and tortured – but will not be running the show by themselves.

The fake story – that the US is powerless – doesn’t pass the laugh test.

It is certainly, obviously true that the power of the US is not infinite. It is certainly, obviously true that it is important to recognize the limits of US power.

But if you ask me to reach down the jam from the high shelf, the fact that I am not infinitely tall is not really relevant, is it? The question is not whether I am infinitely tall. The question is whether I am tall enough to reach the high shelf. If I claim that I tried and failed to reach down the jam, wouldn’t the fact that you never saw me anywhere near the shelf give you pause?

So far, the Obama administration has been spotted in the kitchen. But it has not been seen anywhere near the shelf.

The Monitor reports:

The Obama administration has already taken sides, expressing support for the “legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton puts it. It’s promised – read “threatened” – a review of the $1.5 billion the US provides Egypt every year in foreign aid, most of that for military and other security programs.

Hooray! US aid to Egypt is “under review.” But US aid to Egypt could stay “under review” for a thousand years. This was the response of the State Department to the coup in Honduras: US aid was “under review,” even though, under US law, US aid should have been cut off immediately.

We will know that the Obama administration is starting to get serious when it starts to do the following three things:

  1. Making specific threats linking US aid to particular outcomes, in this case, to the protection of peaceful protests.
  2. Announcing the cutting or suspension of particular aid programs.
  3. Canceling US visas of specific Egyptian officials – for example, Egyptian officials linked to the violence.

How do we know that the US could do this? We know this because, in the past, these are levers that the US has used when it was serious. In Honduras, belatedly, it used levers two and three, in 2009. In Haiti, it used levers one and three recently, pressuring the Haitian government to adopt the recommendations of an Organization of American States (OAS) report on the disputed November election. That dubious intervention in Haiti – the effect of that intervention was to ratify an election in which a quarter of eligible Haitian voters participated, and in which the most popular party in Haiti, that of deposed former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was kept off the ballot – was successful: the Haitian electoral council has now adopted the recommendations of the OAS report. Indeed, as the world was watching Egypt, Secretary of State Clinton was in Haiti, twisting the arms of Haitian officials.

I will pay $100 to any US official, politician, analyst or pundit who opposes the use of these levers against the Mubarak regime who can document that they opposed the recent use of these levers against the Haitian government.

When the Obama administration has: one, made specific threats to the Mubarak regime and the Egyptian military linking US aid to the protection of peaceful protests; two, announced the cutting or suspension of particular aid programs; and, three, canceled the visas of Egyptian officials linked to violence, then I promise not to laugh when The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Obama administration has “few options.”

You can ask US officials to take action on lever number one here.