The United States, a longtime ally of Egypt that has intensified its calls for democratic transition, reminded the military rulers in Cairo Tuesday that Washington expects them to fulfill their promises as the three U.S. students arrested in Cairo protests were being questioned by an Egyptian prosecutor.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the “excess of force” used by Egyptian security forces against anti-military protesters and urged the authorities to ensure the right of the people to freedom of expression.
“We believe that the Egyptian government has a particular responsibility to restrain security forces,” Nuland said, urging the authorities to “exercise maximum restraint.”
The remarks signaled a change in tone over just 24 hours.
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney had said the administration of President Barack Obama was “deeply concerned” about the violence in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, without targeting either side for particular criticism.
Tens of thousands of protesters filled the Square on Tuesday to demand an end to military rule, following a government crackdown on days of protests that has left at least 28 people dead.
Nuland said the United States was reassured by an announcement earlier Tuesday by Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, that parliamentary elections would be held on schedule on Nov. 28.
In a televised speech, Tantawi accepted the resignation of the cabinet, said the military was prepared to hold a referendum on an immediate transfer of power and that presidential elections would be held by July 2012.
“The fact that General Tantawi went out and reaffirmed them today was significant,” she told reporters.
Washington would be watching the generals
But Nuland made it clear that Washington would be watching the generals, who have been in power since a popular uprising led to the ouster of veteran leader Hosni Mubarak in February, to ensure they follow through.
“We certainly will hold the ruling authorities to the commitments that were made today,” she said.
“We have made clear from the beginning that we stand with the Egyptian people in their aspirations for a full democratic transition,” Nuland added, according to AFP.
“So we have reassurances now from military authorities again that that is their intention. And that gives us a basis to, going forward, hold them to what they committed to the Egyptian people.”
Nuland also said Washington was “looking forward to the naming of a new Egyptian government,” following Tantawi’s acceptance of the current cabinet's resignation, one week before the highly-anticipated legislative elections.
The United States had considered Egypt to be one of its closest allies in the Arab world during Mubarak's three decades in power.
Its peace deal with Israel and the strong military ties between Cairo and Washington explained the relatively discreet U.S. criticisms of the Mubarak regime.
But after only a few days of wavering when the uprising broke out, Obama called for a democratic transition in Egypt. At the time, the administration praised the military's restraint towards anti-government protesters.
Since then, Washington has intensified its calls for Egypt’s military to end both the state of emergency -- in place since the start of the Mubarak era -- and military trials of civilians, which critics say result in harsh sentences.
The United States, keen to preserve the key regional alliance, has hinted it would not object if fair parliamentary elections in Egypt produced a victory for the powerful Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Nathan Brown, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the U.S. influence in Egypt was in fact rather limited.
“Many Egyptians feel the United States has leverage with the military -- many throughout the region wonder how strongly we will stand against Islamists,” Brown wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
“Our influence is likely greatly exaggerated in both regards, not only in our own minds but also in those of activists in the region. But we still need to acknowledge and react to our perceived influence.”
U.S. students questioned in Cairo
Meanwhile, a teenager who was one of three American college students arrested during massive protests in Cairo is an idealist who got caught up in the pro-democracy movement sweeping Egypt, his mother said Tuesday.
Derrik Sweeney, a 19-year-old Georgetown University student, was arrested along with Luke Gates, a 21-year-old Indiana University student, and Gregory Porter, a 19-year-old Drexel University student.
An Egyptian official said the students were arrested on the roof of a university building where they were throwing firebombs at security forces fighting with protesters near Tahrir Square. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to speak to the media, The Associated Press reported.
Morgan Roth, spokeswoman for the American University in Cairo, said the three were questioned Tuesday by an Egyptian prosecutor with a U.S. Embassy official present.
Roth said the students have been held by Egyptian authorities since their arrest Monday but she did not know whether they had been formally charged. It wasn't unusual for American students to get “caught up” in Egyptian politics, she said.
Sweeney’s mother, Joy Sweeney, described him as a principled person who stands up for his beliefs. He attended previous protests but stopped after a demonstration where dozens were killed, she said. He had assured his family the violence wasn't near him and he was safe.
Still, Joy Sweeney said she wasn’t surprised he went.
“He got caught up in the whole college-change-the-world mentality, and he believes in democracy strongly,” she said.
But she also said her son was the family peacemaker when siblings fought and she couldn't see him acting violently.
“I don’t believe that he would intentionally throw a bomb at anyone,” she said. “I don’t believe that.”
Their parents said Sweeney and Gates had been in Cairo since August, studying Arabic along with other subjects.
Joy Sweeney said others attending previous demonstrations had praised her son's Arabic and appreciated that a “blond-hair, blue-eyed kid” was supporting their calls for democracy.
Joy Sweeney and Gates’ father, Bill Gates, they have been in contact officials from the U.S. Embassy but have little information so far about their sons.
“I don’t think anybody really knows what to expect,” Bill Gates said.
Assil Dayri, 17, of Geneva, Switzerland, an American University student who is friends with Derrik Sweeney and Luke Gates, said they left the school Monday evening to see what was going on Tahrir Square. By 3:30 a.m., he got a call that they were being taken away by people they didn’t know and that they didn't know where they were going, he said. Then the phone cut off.
He said he’s confident his friends were not throwing firebombs as Egyptian officials have said but neither know Arabic well enough to communicate with Egyptian police.
“I think it’s a big misunderstanding,” Dayri said by telephone.
He said he’s heard claims authorities found a backpack containing explosives that belonged to Sweeney, but it wasn’t his.
“He left without a backpack,” Dayri said.