Lazare bears witness to the use of “Made in the USA” (but no longer so-labeled) tear gas, its export approved by the US state department, in the violent state repression of dissent in Cairo.
On the final night of John Kerry’s much vaunted early March visit to Egypt to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood and some opposition leaders, a familiar scene played out in the streets of Cairo. Around the corner from the iconic Tahrir Square, about 200 protesters clashed with police in response to a police incursion into the square the previous night. Shop owners slammed their doors shut, and shoppers quickly emptied out of the streets as the protesters, many appearing to be children no older than 12, approached police lines. Suddenly a series of bangs rang out, and choking tear gas filled the air. In the resulting confusion, protesters sprinted down the street in a swarm, with a police vehicle tearing after them.
When the gas and chaos settled, I learned that two people had been run over and possibly killed, and another two had suffered less serious wounds. A screeching ambulance carried the injured away and the crowd disbursed.
During John Kerry’s visit, which centered on the offer of $250 million in aid to muscle Egypt into loan negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, this new secretary of state made a show of his supposed impartiality, meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood and some opposition politician, and chiding political leaders on the economic good sense of “vibrant democracy.” This aid is in addition to the $1.3 billion the United States gives to Egypt’s military, a continuation from the Mubarak years.
What was missing was any mention of US state department consent for mass exports of tear gas from US companies to the Egyptian government that regularly uses this weapon against continued uprisings throughout Egypt, in crackdowns like the one I witnessed.
Exports of tear gas from the United States to the Egyptian government are no secret. US shipments to the Mubarak regime were used against the protesters who overthrew his regime. Images of protesters holding tear gas canisters that read “made in the USA” stoked the ire of anti-Mubarak protesters and came to be one symbol of the US role propping up Mubarak’s overgrown security state.
Yet, these shipments did not stop with the fall of Mubarak. Amnesty International documents repeated shipments of tear gas from US-based Combined Systems, Inc., dating back to November 2011, exports that were approved by the US state department on the grounds that the Egyptian government is not misusing this weapon. According to the Egypt Independent, Egypt’s interior ministry ordered 140,000 tear gas canisters from the United States on February 22, this time without a visible Made-In-The-USA label. Leaked documents indicate that the removal of the country of origin label was a condition of US state department approval.
US-based companies Nonlethal Technologies and Defense Technology ship tear gas around the world, as well as domestically. Wyoming-based Defense Technology is responsible for the tear gas canister that may have severely injured and almost killed Scott Olsen, Occupy Oakland protester and Iraq Veterans Against the War Member, in November 2011.
Whether this tear gas is sold or given from the US government to another or sold from commercial companies to governments, at the very least, it is subject to weapons export rules, meaning shipments require US government approval. Therefore tear gas shipments from the United States to anywhere in the world carry US government consent.
I went to Cairo fully aware of massive corporate sales of tear gas, approved by the state department, to the Muslim Brotherhood. What I was not prepared for was the way in which this supposedly nonlethal weapon is incorporated into broad tactics of violence against protesters that often have lethal results, in chaotic scenes like the one I witnessed, where speeding police cars, tear gas, and sometimes live fire create deadly combinations.
And then there is the ability of tear gas itself to kill, by direct impact of a tear gas canister or through the effects of gas inhalation. Physicians for Human Rights documents 34 cases of death by tear gas in the first year of Bahrain’s uprising, tear gas that likely came from Combined Systems, Inc., the same producer that mass ships to Egypt. As recently as March 9, Egyptian security officials said a protester died of tear gas inhalation.
Every protester I talked to – anarchists, feminist organizers, independents and activists with No More Military Trials for Civilians – made a clear call for an immediate end of US shipments of tear gas. Each person had a story to tell of getting gassed and experiences of sustaining and witnessing other forms of violence, including police torture and shootings.
In an outdoor seaside café as the sun set behind the Alexandria coast, independent activist and writer Aly El Raggal, who was injured in the early days of the revolution, said, “Please do something about the tear gas. It is a big problem. This is an example of US support of Muslim Brotherhood, SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) and Mubarak repression of protests.”
In a downtown Cairo outdoor café, in the midst of bustling shops, independent activist Shimaa Helmy explained that everyone knows tear gas comes from the United States. “Why would the US continue to allow this while talking about supporting the Egyptian people?”
I had assumed that activists would have bigger things to worry about, like police live fire on street mobilizations. But each person I talked to insisted that the tear gas is part of a strategy of state violence against protesters, backed by the United States.
Groups and coalitions around the world are taking direct action against US tear gas shipments. Al Ahram reports that in early December 2011, a group of workers in Egypt’s Suez seaport refused to receive a shipment of 21 tons of tear gas from the United States. That was one month after an Occupy Wall Street protest outside of the New York City headquarters of Combined Systems Inc. In early February 2012, Anonymous hackers marked the one-year anniversary of civil uprisings in Bahrain by hacking the web site of tear gas producer Combined Systems, Inc.
The War Resisters League has launched a petition against the most recent shipment of 140,000 canisters of US-made tear gas, as well as a campaign Facing Tear Gas that collects stories of people around the world whose lives have been affected by US shipments of teargas to their governments. One chilling testimony reads:
“Tahrir square, Jan 25th, 2013. Me and my parents were protesting against the new ‘religious’ regime ruled by Morsi. All of a sudden, we heard screams from several areas around us and people running away from an unknown attack. We couldn’t tell what it was till we felt sharp burns through our respiratory system, we coughed so hard, and we didn’t know that we had to run so fast. It was strange, the gas was colorless, and no warning sound was heard before the bomb was released. Young men and women found it easier to run to fresh air and catch breath. But me while tied to 2 old parents, we were unable to run fast; in a few seconds we almost lost our sight and consciousnesses, burning in our eyes, faces and throat. I fell on the ground spitting liquids and trying stick to my parents. But looking behind me, I couldn’t find them anymore. A lifesaver made me breath some vinegar vapor, somehow it worked and came back to life after i almost thought it’s my end. And thankfully later, I discovered my parents were saved in the same manner. This gas has a killing effect for us. Please help us STOP getting gas into our cities. – Mohammed”
US political discourse may ignore this issue, but people in cities around the world who face death and fear protesting in their own cities and towns do not have that option. John Kerry would be advised, next time he is in Egypt, to step outside into Egypt’s streets and see, firsthand, the United State’s real contribution to Egypt’s “vibrant democracy.”