The State Department now acknowledges that "elements" of the Egyptian military have taken part in the violent crackdown on journalists and activists in Cairo over the past few days, calling into question the positive influence and neutrality of the military, which the Obama administration praised last week.
Human rights activists in Washington and Cairo reported last week uniformed Egyptian military personnel were directly involved in the arrest, detention, and interrogation of human rights activists in Egypt, including the raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which included the arrest of Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams. In a gripping first-hand account on Monday, Williams explained the extensive role of Egyptian military personnel in his incarceration.
"The initial impression was that the military sided with the demonstrators yet provided order amid the chaos, which is why I was surprised to see the soldier on the chair, harassing the human rights workers about a ‘suspicious meeting' with foreigners bent on ‘ruining our country,' Williams wrote on Monday at The Daily Beast. "There was no doubt that the army was in charge of the raid. At one point, a major general showed up at the Hisham Mubarak center and other officers worked hand in glove with a uniformed policeman, plainclothes state security agents and assorted abusive henchmen."
Williams was brought with other activists and a Japanese photographer to Camp 75, a military headquarters in northeast Cairo, where he was interrogated and held for 36 hours.
"The raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center exemplifies the persistence of abusive security practices under a military establishment, which claims it wants transition from the past," he wrote. "But in this and other cases, now being documented by Human Rights Watch, the army was clearly in charge of arbitrary and sometimes violent arrests, even if the beatings and torture had been "outsourced" to other agencies or thugs."
Pressed on the issue by The Cable at today's briefing, spokesman P.J. Crowley said the State Department was aware that some military units participated in the raids but also pointed out that other military units played a role in protecting journalists and maintaining a measure of stability in Tahrir Square.
"To the extent that there were elements within the military that participated in these abuses of journalists and others last week, they should be held fully accountable," Crowley said. "By the same token, when you look at the streets of Cairo over the past several days since the violence on Wednesday, the military did play a constructive role."
Crowley said that the State Department has formally raised the issue of military involvement in the crackdowns with their Egyptian interlocutors but declined to relate the specifics of those conversations.
A State Department official, speaking on background, said that the Egyptian military was acting during the crisis "in some instances constructively, in some instances not." The official suggested that "elements" of the military were involved, specifically military police units, which have ties to the Ministry of Interior, the department believed to be orchestrating the crackdowns.
Regardless, the acknowledgement of Egyptian military involvement in the crackdowns on activists and journalists comes only four days after Crowley praised the military. "We are very impressed with the posture and the professionalism displayed by the Egyptian military," Crowley said at a Feb. 3 press briefing.
The military's involvement in the raids is a troubling indicator for the Obama administration and others that the army is not altogether playing a mediating role during Egypt's transition process.
"It's a worrying sign of things to come," Heba Morayef, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch," told McClatchy, "because the military is going to play a big role going forward."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.