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On State Violence, the Cost of Escalation, and Egypt's Descent Into Chaos

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The violence in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square that began on December 16th between military police and an increasingly belligerent core of protestors, has been particularly ugly. In fact, the circumstances surrounding this violence represent clear evidence that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has taken domestic and international indifference as a license to act with total impunity, and it has dropped all pretense of restraint and tolerance for dissent.

U.S. policy makers must use their leverage and speak out against the following:

1) We can no longer avoid the clear pattern of willingness by SCAF to encourage disorder and brutality among its conscript soldiers and officer toward those engaging in social and political dissent. This latest violence erupted when military police, armed with sticks and guns, began to break up a sit-in before the Egyptian cabinet, coinciding with their destruction of the protestor's encampment in the middle of the Square. Not only did soldiers tear down and torch protestors' tents, but in a frightful show of disdain, circulating footage also shows officers themselves standing on top of the parliament building, hurling rocks and chunks of cement down on the protesters below -- and even apparently urinating on them at one point. The most damning portrait of this nasty business, of course, is in the shocking and widely-circulated image of a veiled female protestor being stripped to her bra, dragged along the pavement, and stomped upon by a soldier.

2) The SCAF and its new prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri have renewed claims that a foreign conspiracy is at work in Tahrir Square, and have treated with particular brutality domestic and foreign journalists in the last few days. Reporters from a variety of local press outlets (e.g., al-Tahrir, al-Masry al-Youm) and international networks (e.g., Al-Jazeera English) have been beaten, detained, and forcibly relieved of their of equipment. Joseph Mayton, an American journalist and editor-in-chief of BikyaMasr.com, experienced just such a detention: he has reported his experience being beaten and arrested simply for taking pictures of the violence on Saturday, of having the American Embassy in Cairo explicitly decline to intervene in his case, and of observing the severe treatment of detainees -- including children -- in military custody, before his eventual release. SCAF is thus actively trampling press freedoms along with the protestors' basic right to assemble and express themselves, and such brutality is utterly unacceptable under any circumstances.

3) In a disturbing reprise of SCAF's press conference on October 10th, following the Maspero Massacre of peaceful Coptic demonstrators, the military leadership has also geared its official rhetoric in a way designed to incite the Egyptian to violence against political dissidents. In a press conference on December 19th, Gen. Adel Emara praised the sacrificial efforts and restraint of it soldiers, blamed the violence on the usual conspiracy against the country, and (while ignoring the clear evidence to the contrary) stated that the army's use of violence against civilians was a baseless fabrication by the media. The previous day, Gen. Abdel Kato commented that protestors who lashed back at the army in the most recent clashes deserved the fate of "Hitler's ovens" instead of the public's sympathy.

It is important to note that the above dynamics are not new; rather, they represent an intensification of the Egyptian military's violent approach to the nation's struggling protest movement. This also holds the potential to play directly into the hands of Islamist parties. The MB is keenly aware of this, and after strategically remaining aloof in casting blame for previous clashes, the organization on Monday explicitly condemned SCAF for its brutality. This is an important shift in the Brotherhood's rhetoric, and evidence that is preparing to seize the moment to take a moral high ground in the chaos -- even as its commitment to the current political timetable remains central to its strategy for success.

It is time that the SCAF is finally held accountable for its actions, by the international community and especially by its most important benefactors in the U.S. government. Secretary of State Clinton has made an important first step by clearly condemning the violence perpetrated against women in the recent violence, but such denunciation must be transformed into action. So far, the Obama administration has refused to make military aid to Egypt -- which currently stands at $1.3 billion each year -- conditional on swift and genuine progress toward civilian rule and the protection of fundamental human rights. This stance is, in fact, hurting American interests, as the sense of impending chaos is likely to drive Egypt further toward Islamist rule and economic disaster (among other concerns). In this case, the protection of basic human rights and accountability for Egypt's failed leadership are one and the same with American interests.

Such a stand will draw a bold and unmistakable red line in front of the sorts of abuses that we have seen in the streets of Egypt in previous days and weeks. The situation is untenable in the meantime: freedoms are being crushed, Egyptian protestors and members of the media are suffering, and anti-Americanism is likely to skyrocket.