WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, told his Egyptian counterpart this morning he wanted to see a “return to calm,” and offered his confidence that the Egyptian military could secure the country and the strategically vital Suez Canal. It is the latest round of praise by American leaders for the restraint of the Egyptian military, which is armed with decades-worth of American-made weaponry and training.
The statement from Mullen’s spokesman, however, came as live cable news accounts from Cairo depict Egyptian military forces in tanks doing little or nothing to stop waves of attacks on peaceful protestors in the heart of Tahrir Square from Molotov cocktails and baton-wielding horse and camel riders.
Lt. Gen. Sami Enan briefed Mullen on the ground situation since President Hosni Mubarak pledged late Tuesday to not run for reelection later this year, according to a statement from Capt. John Kirby, Mullen’s spokesman.
“The chairman thanked him for the continued contact, reiterated his desire to see the situation return to calm and expressed his confidence in the Egyptian military's ability to provide for their country's security, both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area," Kirby said.
On Monday, Mullen had praised Egyptian soldiers for allowing protests to continue without interference. “So far, the Egyptian military have handled themselves exceptionally well,” Mullen said in a podcast to American troops.
On Tuesday evening, however, Mubarak announced he would not be stepping down immediately, fueling further opposition protests. President Barack Obama then read a statement in which he quickly praised the Egyptian military’s restraint, saying: “First, we oppose violence. And I want to commend the Egyptian military for the professionalism and patriotism that it has shown thus far in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people. We’ve seen tanks covered with banners, and soldiers and protesters embracing in the streets. And going forward, I urge the military to continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful.”
But the situation in Cairo quickly deteriorated overnight, reaching previously unseen levels of violence directed at the protestors and the Western reporters and media crews covering them.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper reported pro-Mubarak instigators attacked him and his camera crew, hitting him in the head repeatedly and trying to steal their equipment. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour said their car doors were bashed in and windshield shattered by a “mob” that surrounded them as they tried to film the chaos.
As darkness fell in Cairo, the worsening situation prompted a new statement from the White House’s Robert Gibbs at 10:45am, saying: “The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators. We repeat our strong call for restraint.”
One hour later, Kirby released his statement, reprinted here in full:
"The Chairman spoke by phone this morning with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan. This was their second conversation since Gen. Enan returned to Cairo last week. The general provided an update on recent developments in the wake of President Mubarak's speech. The Chairman thanked him for the continued contact, reiterated his desire to see the situation return to calm and expressed his confidence in the Egyptian military's ability to provide for their country's security, both internally and throughout the Suez Canal area."