The Official Egyptian Crackdown On Journalists, And The Challenge For Obama

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Here is the newly installed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, a longtime partner of U.S. intelligence agencies, on Egyptian television this morning describing foreign journalists as enemies of the state. “I blame some friendly states who are hosting non-friendly TV stations who charge the youth against the state. They pinpointed and highlighted with some false reports and exaggerations. I feel sad for these TV stations, which are operating from friendly states, who should not have created this sentiment of antipathy,” he says, according to this translation. Suleiman seems to be referring to Al Jazeera, which broadcasts in Arabic from Qatar, or Al Arabia, which broadcasts from the United Arab Emirates. But his discussion of “TV stations” could easily be read to include American and British broadcasters as well, who like Al Jazeera have seen their reporters subjected to beatings and detention in recent days.

Andrew Lee Butters, a TIME correspondent was detained by a group that clearly appeared to be working with Egyptian police. The Associated Press reports that military police raided the offices of human rights workers from Amnesty International and arrested at least 30, and that the Army was rounding up journalists. There are clear signs that the Mubarak regime is organizing these attacks and directing the violence.

In the United States, the Obama administration is condemning these actions, as before, while White House officials hold out hope that the U.S.-equipped Egyptian military will refrain from turning American weapons on pro-democracy protesters. But as time passes, and as the regime continues to brush aside the condemnations, there are worrying signs that the close ties between the U.S. and the Egypt will not stop a continuation of the violent crackdown.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced this afternoon, “The Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists’ ability to report on these events to the people of Egypt and to the world.” But she stopped short of explicitly condemning the official Egyptian role in the crackdown, and she went on to urge opposition groups to sit down with Vice President Suleiman, as Suleiman has demanded.

From the beginning of this crisis, the Obama Administration has tried to stay a half-step ahead of events in Egypt, not wanting to be seen as dictating any outcomes in the internal struggles of an ally. As a result, the Obama Administration has appeared, more often than not, to always be falling a little behind the curve, reacting to the last outrage even as a new one unfolds. If violence sparks again on Friday night, as many expect, and the government causes more bloodshed, we can expect more outrageous condemnations by the White House officials. But will those words will be enough to preserve for the president the role he seeks on the world stage, as a leader promoting democracy and human rights? Just two years ago, Obama appeared in Cairo, presenting himself as an international leader in the push for democracy and human rights. Upon awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee wrote, “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.” But the even after accepting that prize, Obama continued to support the Mubarak regime, despite Egyptian elections in November of 2010 that were marred by historic fraud and arrests.

Now Suleiman, a longtime partner of the U.S, appears to be, at minimum, condoning a crackdown. Late Thursday, the White House released a statement from Vice President Joe Biden describing his phone conversation today with Suleiman Thursday. In the call, Biden “restated the President’s support for universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech.” Those words carry much less weight today than they did when Obama spoke similar ones in 2009. By all appearances, the international leadership of President Obama, based on a speech he gave in Cairo, has been sidelined by events on those same streets.

UPDATE: The above analysis may not hold water for long. The New York Times is reporting that the Obama Administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a plan that would have Mubarak step down immediately to make way for a transitional government run by Suleiman. Read the story here.

The White House is pushing back against the Times’ story, without completely denying it. “It’s simply wrong to report that there’s a single U.S. plan that’s being negotiated with the Egyptians,” says one Administration official. The White House does admit to ongoing conversations. “We have discussed with the Egyptians a variety of different ways to move that process forward, but all of those decisions must be made by the Egyptian people,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

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