WASHINGTON — Rep. Keith Ellison, the highest-level U.S. government official so far to offer public support, today said he stands with the people of Egypt as protesters have taken over the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other northern cities in defiance of President Hosni Mubarak.
“Ppl of Egypt DESERVE freedom; I stand w/ them. Yes, I urge the gov’t of Egypt to stop violence, excessive force,” Ellison tweeted Friday morning, shortly before a curfew was imposed in Egypt and the Egyptian military was ordered to take over the streets and quell the protests. Egyptian officials shut off Internet access in the country, and gunfire can be heard in the streets.
So far, the U.S. government has strived to take a neutral stance that leans toward the incumbent government. Officials in the White House and State Department have so far called for calm, non-violence and talks.
Protesters have accused the Mubarak government of oppression, calling him a “dictator” who allows only a token, toothless opposition but no dissent. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former head of the UN’s nuclear inspections agency, has returned to Egypt in opposition to the Mubarak government and, at one point, was fired on by Egyptian officials with water cannons and tear gas and has now been confined to a mosque.
“Let’s DO something,” Ellison tweeted again. “10k ltrs [letters] to WH urging pressure on Egyptian govt to release of M. El-Baradei, stop violence against protestors. C’mon!”
Anti-government protests have spread in North Africa and the Middle East after a successful uprising in Tunisia, and field reporters on the Al Jazeera television network broadcasting from Egypt said the leadership change in Tunisia has inspired protesters in Egypt who have taken over police stations, lit government buildings and vehicles on fire and are presently defying an imposed curfew.
The U.S. has backed Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, for much of his 30-year reign in that country — especially following Egypt’s decision to normalize relations with Israel — and Vice President Joe Biden said recently that he considers Mubarak an “ally.”
According to The Guardian in London, leaked State Department cables confirmed the U.S. provides Egypt with $1.3 billion annually to finance its military — the same military that is now trying to quell protests on the streets.
Yet Thursday, the White House pivoted slightly, stressing that it had pressed Mubarak’s government on human rights issues.
“This isn’t a choice between the government and the people of Egypt,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “Egypt, we know — and President Mubarak has for several decades been a close and important partner with our country. And every time the President meets with President Mubarak — and I would point you to the speech in Cairo in 2009 where the President also specifically addresses this, as well as the readout that we put out on the September meeting that the President had with President Mubarak as part of the Middle East peace process — that we consistently have advocated for the universal rights of assembly, of free speech, of political reform. All of those are important and we have at every turn encouraged President Mubarak to find a way to engender that political discourse in a positive way. And we will continue to do that.”
For more coverage of this, I’d suggest the English-language Al Jazeera tv network, which is livestreamed online here.