President Obama has demanded daily briefings from his staff on the unrest in Egypt, which puts the U.S. in the awkward position of standing with a repressive yet key U.S. ally that is the target of a pro-democracy movement.
Each day an interagency task force at the White House — with officials from the State Department, intelligence community, National Security Staff and the like — hold a meeting to discuss the situation on the ground, with US Ambassador Margaret Scobey participating via video teleconference, White House officials tell ABC News.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been a critical ally for the U.S. in standing against Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, in recognizing the Iraqi government, and in trying to broker peace between the Israelis and Paliestinians. Behind the scenes, officials say, the Obama administration has pushed Mubarak to get ahead of the strengthening democracy movement in his country.
Recent cables obtained by Wikileaks seem to back up claims of pressure, U.S. concerns about Egypt, and a strong alliance. An anecdote-filled January 2009 missive from Scobey detailed how police brutality in Egypt is "routine and pervasive," including brutality against "demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders."
The brutality against political opponents has decreased, she wrote, but "security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat." The Egyptian government, she wrote, "has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution."
But at the same time, a February 2010 cable prepared by Scobey for FBI Director Robert Mueller details how "President Mubarak sees Iran as Egypt's — and the region's — primary strategic threat….Egypt continues to support our efforts to resume negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and maintains a regular dialogue with all sides…We maintain close cooperation on a broad range of counter-terrorism and law enforcement issues."
Scobey told Mueller that the "Egyptian government's active opposition to Islamist terrorism and effective intelligence and security services makes Egypt an unattractive safe haven for terror groups." But she noted that some of the reason for that was rooted in the "Egyptian government's far-reaching powers in the realm of counter-terrorism come from a broad-reaching Emergency Law, which has been in force almost continuously since 1967."
That Emergency Law is not only "used to target violent Islamic extremist groups," Scobey wrote, but also "to target political activity by the Muslim Brotherhood, writers, activists and others."
The Department of Interior's State Security Investigative Service is used to "monitor and sometimes infiltrate the political opposition and civil society, and to suppress political opposition through arrests, harassment and intimidation," she wrote.
Egypt, Scobey wrote, is skeptical of the US push for democracy, "complaining that any efforts to open up will result in empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently holds 86 seats — as independents — in Egypt's 454-seat parliament."
While the government has long committed to lifting the State of Emergency and replacing it with a counterterrorism law, that has not happened. "It will be useful to stress," Scobey wrote, the US government's interest Egypt's "passage of a counterterrorism law that will protect civil liberties."
The Obama administration has pursued these efforts quietly and behind the scenes. In a February 2010 cable, Scobey reports on a human rights activist — whose identity Wikileaks redacted from the cable — urging the US government to make the human rights priority in Egypt an end to torture, which the activist attributed "to senior-level Interior Ministry pressure on officers to extract confessions, especially in murder cases, by any means necessary." The activist said that "unrelenting pressure" on police officers led to a climate where "to conduct murder investigations, police will round up 40 to 50 suspects from a neighborhood and hang them by their arms from the ceiling for weeks until someone confesses."
"He recommended quiet diplomacy over public statements" to urge this change, Scobey wrote.
Public pressure was resented, it would seem. After a meeting with Mubarak advisor Soliman Awad, Scobey reported that the Egyptian government was displeased "with the number and the tone of U.S. recommendations at the February 17 UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt's human rights record."
"Shalaby explained that although European countries made many of the same recommendations," the government of Egypt was "less bothered" because it does not enjoy "the same level of cooperation with the Europeans."
Shalaby said that some in the Egyptian government wondered if the US was under "external pressure" to be more "hawkish" on human rights in Egypt, or whether the US intervention was "retribution" for U.S.-Egyptian differences over procedure during the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review over Israel's human rights record.
Interestingly, another dispatch from the US Embassy in Cairo says that "Egypt's bloggers are playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of acceptable political and social discourse, and self-expression." By discussing sensitive issues "such as sexual harassment, sectarian tension and the military" bloggers have "influenced society and the media," though the Egyptian government has worked to undercut any movement of bloggers towards "a cohesive activist movement."
Bloggers, the US Embassy said, is given lattitude in criticizing the Egyptian government except when it comes to insulting President Mubarak or Islam.