Diplomatic Pouch / February 2012
By Larry Luxner
On Jan. 25, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington threw a big celebration to mark one year since the overthrow of Egypt’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
Not all Egyptians, however, were in the mood to party.
Some 30 to 40 enraged protesters chanted “Tantawi is a murderer, referring to Egyptian Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and “What is there to celebrate?” as police officers kept them away from the embassy’s entrance on International Drive. Inside, more than 200 members of Washington’s Egyptian expat community spent the evening hobnobbing with each other, nibbling on “revolution cake” and sipping sparkling water, apple juice and Coca-Cola.
In a bit of irony, the banquet hall was decorated with color images of joyful protestors setting off fireworks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Egyptian Ambassador Samer Shoukry, in his Arabic-language address, made a passing reference to the protesters outside his door — indicating that “those people outside are no less Egyptian and no less loyal than those inside.”
But his words largely fell on deaf ears as the protesters rallied against what they say are “brutal and inhumane crimes against our brothers and sisters in Egypt” committed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been ruling the Arab world’s largest country since Mubarak’s ouster a year ago.
“It’s unacceptable and inappropriate that SCAF and the Egyptian authorities organize a celebration of the revolution, acting as its heroes and saviors, while killing, detaining, insulting and lying to the Egyptian people, and continuously violating their human and civil rights,” read a flyer handed out during the protest. “Moreover, a ‘celebration’ not only sends a false message that the revolution is over, but also that it had ended successfully, and that all the demands were met.”
Protesters said they refused to attend the embassy celebration while “peaceful protesters are still being shot, beaten, tortured and detained in military prisons, women are being beaten and stripped on the streets” and state TV “spreads lies and rumors to defame the protesters” rather than investigate their claims.
Shoukry later told Pouch that despite the anger rising from the small band of protesters outside, he did speak to some of them.
“A few came in toward the end of the party to use the bathroom,” he said. “We had a cordial discussion, and we recognize that all segments of society have a right to demonstrate.”
Asked why the Egyptian Embassy saw fit to organize a celebration while violent protests are still taking place on a daily basis in Cairo and other cities, Shoukry said “this was an important junction in Egypt’s history, and its importance warrants that we commemorate it” — though he conceded that “there have been mistakes made that led to loss of life, and apologies have been issued on the part of the government.”
Even so, Shoukry insisted — contrary to the protesters’ angry claims — that “there is no systematic policy of violations of human rights. In any society, there are always individual excesses, but the current situation in Egypt indicates there’s a high degree of respect and a concerted effort by the government to apply the law equally, and to refrain from any forms of violence.”
The ongoing protests coincide with the December raid by Egyptian authorities on 13 pro-democracy groups that receive foreign funding. These groups include two Washington-based NGOs — the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute — that were in Egypt to monitor the country’s recent parliamentary elections. Six Americans are among the 10 foreigners who’ve banned from leaving Egypt; they include Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The raid is widely considered to be an attack on free speech, and an attempt by the SACF to rein in critics of its heavy-handed tactics against anti-government demonstrators.
But Shoukry claims this isn’t the case at all.
“There is no detention,” he said. “There’s an embargo on their leaving the country, pending a judicial proceeding and investigation. These [foreigners] are free to remain in Cairo or travel within the country. They are not under any form of supervision. But they can be called upon at any moment to testify in the ongoing judicial investigation, in conformity with normal legal practice.”
Shoukry acknowledged that the standoff has inflamed tensions between Egypt and the United States.
“There’s certainly a great deal of apprehension,” he told Pouch. “We are carefully monitoring the remarks and statements made by the administration and members of Congress, and we recognize that the U.S. must be concerned with the best interests of its citizens. But this investigation has been ongoing since last July, and it has nothing to do with the political developments in Egypt, which are being set by the dialogue between various components of the political landscape. This is a totally distinct issue.”
We asked Shoukry about the Pentagon’s threats to suspend U.S. military aid to Egypt, currently worth about $1.3 billion a year, unless the Americans are freed.
“I wouldn’t like to speculate on this,” he replied. “We recognize the value of this relationship to both parties, but it is not a one-way street. The U.S. has extracted considerable benefits from this relationship that far exceeds the value of this assistance.”
Pressed further, Shoukry said “this is a matter for the administration and Congress to determine.”