|Combined Systems tear gas canisters retrieved by protestors from Tahrir Square. Photo: omarroberthamilton. Used under Creative Commons license|
Egyptian security forces launched a massive crackdown on pro-democracy protestors killing around 300 people this morning. Despite near universal condemnation for the violence, the U.S. government has refused cut off the multi-billion dollar aid program that pays companies to provide support to the Egyptian government.
Six weeks ago, the Egyptian army toppled the elected government of Mohammed Morsi in a coup, which automatically disqualifies the country for aid under U.S. law.
But U.S. president Barack Obama has diplomatically chosen to do nothing despite the fact that today’s crackdown on protestors from the Muslim Brotherhood marks the third time that the military government has used deadly force to disperse opposition to the junta, killing dozens of people.
Today Obama made no statement about the massacre in Cairo but opted instead to go out for a round of golf at a private club in Martha’s Vineyard, followed by cocktails at the house of a major donor, according to the New York Times.
“It’s obvious why the Obama administration is handling this so carefully,” Gordon Adams, who oversaw all foreign military financing programs for the Clinton administration, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “When the only leverage you have left is hanging by a thread, you don’t reach for the scissors.”
The tacit support for the Egyptian army is not entirely surprising given the generous support that successive Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington have provided to it for decades, notably under the previous regime of Hosni Mubarak.
For example, Egypt was promised $1.3 billion for military purchases last year, the latest installment in almost 35 years of generous financial support,
A large chunk is conditional on buying U.S. made fighter jets and tanks – Lockheed Martin signed an agreement in 2010 to sell 20 F-16 fighter jets to Egypt by December 2014, under a $2.5 billion deal. Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft sell Egypt CH-47 Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters respectively, while General Dynamics got $395 million in 2011 to assemble Abrams tanks in suburban Cairo.
Egypt also gets money to pay for security officials to take training courses abroad such as at the Centre of Excellence for Stability Police Units in Italy. A U.S. State department cable released by Wikileaks dated January 9, 2009, and another dated September 16, 2008, lists dozens of Egyptian military and police officials cleared for such programs.
Then there is money provided via Washington-based “democracy” contractors such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
Emad Mekay, a reporter with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California at Berkeley, has documented how some of this money has gone to former police officers who have called for violence against Morsi's supporters.
For example Colonel Omar Afifi Soliman - who served in Egypt's elite investigative police unit which is notorious for human rights abuses – was financed by NED for four years, starting in 2008 when he came to the U.S. as a human rights fellow. Later, his organization - Hukuk Al-Nas (People's Rights) - based in Falls Church, Virginia – was funded by NED.
Soliman instructed his followers on Facebook on how to use violent tactics. "Incapacitate them by smashing their knee bones first," he wrote in late June 2013. "Make a road bump with a broken palm tree to stop the buses going into Cairo, and drench the road around it with gas and diesel. When the bus slows down for the bump, set it all ablaze so it will burn down with all the passengers inside … God bless," Soliman's post read.
Some critics say that NED did not finance Soliman’s Facebook posts but Mekay points out that his reporting is factual. "Did those people ask for Morsi's ouster? Yes,” said Mekay. “Did they receive funding over several years from the U.S.? Yes. Do we have documents and videos to back that up? Yes.”
The U.S. has also shipped riot control equipment for use by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. A shipment that arrived November 26, 2011, carrying at least seven tons of "ammunition smoke" – which includes chemical irritants and riot control agents such as tear gas – from Combined Systems, Inc. of Jamestown, Pennsylvania. A U.S. State department spokesperson later confirmed that they had approved licenses for the export of such devices to Egypt.
That very month, more than two dozen people were killed and hundreds injured during protests against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Protestors picked up spent cartridges in Tahrir Square marked with the logo of Combined Systems Inc.
Nor was that the first time that Combined Systems Inc. weaponry has been used against protestors. In late January 2011, during the first protests of the Arab Spring, protestors collected similar tear gas canisters stamped with the logo of Combined Systems Inc.
"These licences were authorized during a period where the Egyptian government responded to protests by using excessive and often lethal force. It is inconceivable that the US authorities did not know of evidence of widely documented abuses by the Egyptian security forces. These licences should not have been granted," said Brian Wood of Amnesty International at the time.
Presidents in Cairo and Washington may come and go, but both the Egyptian military and the contractors that supply them, know that their bond is stronger than democracy.