US Repeatedly Shipped Arms to Egyptian Security Forces Despite Lethal Crackdown

December 8, 2011

egypt tear gas
© Nameer Galal/Demotix

The Egyptian uprising is at a crucial point.  A new cabinet is in power, a new parliament elected, but what it adds up to is all in the air, particularly with the military today making waves about how it will take a leading role in writing the new constitution.

The American reaction, both governmental and popular, hasn’t been entirely helpful.  The latest distraction is panic over whether Islamists will use their electoral power to turn Egypt into another Iran.  Nicholas Kristof today presents a compelling rebuttal as to why Egypt will not take that route.

No, the US has another, more positive role it can play: Focusing attention on human rights.  And where it can start, according to a new Amnesty International report, is halting the transfer of arms shipments to Egypt that aids security forces’ violent crackdown on protesters.

U.S. arms shipments to Egypt’s security forces must be stopped until there is certainty that tear gas and other munitions, weaponry or other equipment are not linked to bloodshed on Egyptian streets.

We know of three significant shipments by the US company Combined Systems Inc. over the past year.  In other words, these sales occurred during a time in which Egyptian military and security forces used excessive and lethal force in repeated crackdowns on protesters.

The most recent shipment for the Egyptian Ministry of Interior arrived from the United States on November 26, carrying at least seven tons of ammunition smoke, which includes chemical irritants and riot control agents such as tear gas.

On August 8, another shipment of 35,793 pounds of ammunition was loaded from New York and transferred to Port Said in Egypt.

On April 8, Combined Systems, Inc. shipped 42,035 pounds of ammunition from the port of Wilmington, N.C. to the Egyptian port of Suez.

The human rights record of Egyptian security forces in responding to protests deserves wide censure.  During the Jan. 25 uprising, at least 840 people were killed and around 6,500 were injured. As recently as November, protesters demanding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces keep their promises to deliver political and human rights reform were violently dispersed with tear gas.  At least two dozen people were killed and hundreds more injured.

Many of the cartridges and grenades picked up by protestors in Tahrir Square were US-made tear gas, including those marked Combined Systems Inc. or Combined Tactical Systems, which is the company’s law enforcement division.

Calling for a halt of arms shipments is a step that Amnesty International takes rarely and only after careful documentation.  But precisely because Egypt is at a crucial point and because to date the Egyptian security forces show little sign of being trained in accordance with international standards on the use of force, the time is right for the US to take dramatic steps.