As we watch the Egyptian police and military viciously attack democracy activists on the streets of Cairo, using U.S. weapons, it is outrageous that the Obama Administration has failed to issue a strong condemnation of this latest attempt to crush a revolution that has inspired people around the world, including millions of Americans.
During the fateful 18 days in January and February when Egyptians took to the streets by the millions to topple the brutal Mubarak dictatorship, President Obama remained largely silent, refusing to call directly for democracy until it was clear that young Egyptians were about to topple the dictator’s three-decade-long rule.
In the months since then, as thousands of Egyptians have been attacked, imprisoned, sexually assaulted and murdered by their government, the United States has not merely remained silent, but has continued to provide crucial diplomatic, economic and military aid to the regime responsible for these crimes.
The latest Egyptian protests were sparked by growing anger over signs that the military leadership plans to hold on to power indefinitely. The military rulers say they will relinquish power once presidential elections are held, but have refused to commit to a plan and a timetable for handing over power to a democratically elected government.
The first of many rounds of voting for parliament is scheduled to begin November 28, but the military has not agreed to form a new government based on these elections. Moreover, it is trying to limit any civilian government from having control over the military’s budget. And it has postponed a presidential election to an indefinite time late in 2012 or in 2013.
Now that the façade of a democratic transition has been ripped away and Egyptians are once again battling the military government in Tahrir Square for the future of their country, with at least 35 civilians killed since Saturday. The Obama administration remains as quiet as it was in the early days of the revolution. Such silence is both morally indefensible and politically and strategically disastrous for the United States.
The United States, with $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year, supplies a large part of the Egyptian military budget. But it refuses to use its considerable leverage. During Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Egypt in October, he actually praised the Egyptian military. “I really do have full confidence in the process that the Egyptian military is overseeing,” he said, “I think they’re making good progress.”
On Monday, November 21, White House spokesman Jay Carney only mustered up the courage to call for restraint from “all sides”—as if the pro-democracy activists were somehow equally responsible for the violence. When asked if the generals should specify the date for a presidential election, Carney replied, “I don’t want to dictate specifics to Egypt.”
As during the Mubarak era, the administration appears to believe that U.S. interests, including Egypt’s peace accord with Israel, are more important than the lives of the Egyptian people.
The march for freedom in Egypt cannot be stopped and when Egyptians finally rid themselves of the military government and establish a democratic system, the United States will have few friends in Egypt, or the Arab world more broadly, if it is seen as having supported the military rather than the people at this pivotal moment.
A principled U.S. position would be to immediately issue a strong condemnation of the violence unleashed by the Egyptian military on its people. The U.S. government should suspend all military aid to the Egyptian government until it stops attacking peaceful protesters, and until it releases the 12,000-plus citizens jailed since Mubarak’s ouster and commits to handing over power to a transitional civilian government as soon as parliamentary elections are completed. President Obama should coordinate with other Western allies and supporters of the Egyptian government to develop a clear and strong policy in support of a rapid transition to democracy and apply the full weight of international diplomatic, economic and legal pressure on the military junta towards that end.
Anything less will be a stain on the United States that will haunt this administration, and the United States more broadly, for years to come.
Join us in signing this letter urging President Obama to condemn the military crackdown and stand with Egypt’s brave citizens struggling for democracy.
Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans are cofounders of CODEPINK: Women for Peace.