WASHINGTON (Agencies) – The Bush administration sharply rebuked Egypt on Thursday for its crackdown on demonstrators and warned of growing impatience in Congress toward a country that is a major recipient of U.S. aid.
In the second public criticism of Egypt this month, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was deeply troubled by the path of political reform and democracy in Egypt.
Egyptian security beat demonstrators and detained journalists covering a protest in Cairo on Thursday in support of judges who face disciplinary action for criticizing election abuses last year.
Several hundred protestors from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kefaya movement and other leftist organisations gathered in downtown Cairo and were surrounded by thousands of policemen.
Riot police were seen beating up protestors with truncheons.
“Dozens of members of the Muslim Brothers were arrested,” said spokesman Issam al-Aryan, whose Islamist opposition movement was for the first time taking part in a demonstration of support for the judges.
Large sections of central Cairo were sealed off to traffic as the political opposition and reformists faced off with state security forces.
“Judges, protect us from dictatorship,” chanted the protestors, who split into at least three separate demonstrations in a bid to avoid being encircled by the police.
An AFP reporter saw one protestor lying on the ground being kicked in the stomach by policemen and several others with bloodied faces being whisked away in police vans.
Several journalists were also manhandled by security, including a cameraman for Al-Jazeera who was badly beaten and had his equipment briefly confiscated, witnesses told AFP.
A cameraman and sound engineer for state-owned Qatari television were arrested while covering the protests, their Cairo bureau said.
And another cameraman for Turkish television was roughed up and his equipment commandeered, witnesses said.
Abeer al-Askari, a journalist for the independent Al-Destour newspaper, also said she was detained briefly at a Cairo police station, beaten, kicked and sexually harassed by policemen.
Security forces sealed off Cairo University’s campus after lecturers staged a protest in support of the judges, preventing them from joining other demonstrators downtown.
Mohammed Abdel Quddus, a prominent member of the journalists syndicate’s board, was arrested early Thursday at a cafe near the courthouse.
The two rebel judges, Mahmud Mekki and Hisham al-Bastawissi, refused to enter the courtroom, where their case was supposed to be reviewed, claiming that their defence team was not allowed to come with them.
“I will no longer attend the hearings of the disciplinary board if the conditions for a fair trial are not met,” Bastawissi told AFP.
The hearing went ahead without the pair, who demanded that their lawyers be allowed in, that all security forces vacate the building and that all protestors detained for supporting them be released. The trial was adjourned until next Thursday.
“Actions such as these are incongruous with the Egyptian government’s professed commitment to increase political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society,” Sean McCormack told reporters.
He also voiced strong concern the periods of detention of many of those arrested had been extended and that security-related charges were filed against them.
Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel and Iraq and gets nearly $2 billion a year from Washington in military and economic assistance.
McCormack said the Bush administration had no plans to cut back on aid to Egypt because of human rights issues but he cautioned there had been “a lot of discussion” in Congress over the amount of U.S. taxpayer funds sent each year to Egypt.
“Foreign governments also need to understand the relationship between the legislative and the executive and the role of the legislative in apportioning funding for these kind of programs,” said McCormack.
The money is intended to help bolster stability and democracy in Egypt but some lawmakers have questioned the aid’s effectiveness.
California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, called for an urgent review of military assistance to Egypt.
Lantos pointed to a report by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, which said the state and defense departments had not properly assessed how tens of billions of aid to Egypt contributed to U.S. security goals.
“This is a massive military entitlement program on auto-pilot,” said Lantos.
Last week, the State Department strongly criticized Egypt’s extension of emergency law, which gives the government wide powers to curtail civil liberties, despite President Hosni Mubarak’s promise to substitute the law with anti-terrorism legislation.
While critical of Egypt, McCormack made very clear the United States viewed Cairo as a close friend and ally, particularly in fighting terrorism.
“That said, when there are issues that arise, like we have seen today, we are going to speak out very plainly about them. And that’s what friends do,” he said.
Ned Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, said the United States should make aid to Egypt conditional, rather than an entitlement. “What is happening today in Egypt is a real step backwards,” said Walker.
He predicted a strong fight in Congress over aid to Egypt, particularly in light of the growing U.S. budget deficit and competing demands for money to pay for domestic programs.
While Washington needed to be firmer, Walker stressed it also had to stay on very good terms with Egypt, pointing out the United States needed access to the Suez Canal as well as overflight rights, particularly while U.S. troops were in Iraq.