Feb. 5: This post has been corrected.
The American-made tear gas used to disperse pro-democracy protesters in Egypt earlier this week was sold to the country after government review, a State Department spokeswoman told us.
The tear gas canisters used by Egyptian police against the protesters bore the label “Made in U.S.A.,” stirring controversy and bolstering the impression among Egyptians that the United States has propped up a dictatorship at the expense of its citizens.
Two government agencies, the Department of State and Department of Commerce, regulate the export of tear gas by granting export licenses allowing U.S. manufacturers to sell tear gas to foreign buyers. The State spokeswoman, Nicole Thompson, said she didn’t immediately know when the approval was given for Egypt.
The chemical compounds in the tear gas determine whether it’s State or Commerce that’s responsible for licensing the product. In general, the State Department licenses the export of defense items—including military-grade tear gas—as spelled out on its Munitions List. The Commerce Department licenses the export of tear gas formulations that are considered “dual use”—that is, for either military or civilian purposes—as well as products considered strictly civilian.
The tear gas canisters photographed in Egypt and Tunisia appear to have been manufactured by Combined Systems Inc. The company did not respond to our requests for comment. A spokesman for the company had previously told CNN that it operates well within the law by selling tear gas to countries like Tunisia and Egypt.
CNN also reported that labels on the tear gas canisters found in both countries read, “Danger: Do not fire directly at person(s). Severe injury or death may result.” According to CNN, a 32-year-old photographer in Tunisia died recently after he was hit by a tear gas grenade at close range.
In the case of the tear gas used in Egypt, the State Department confirmed to me that it approved the sale of tear gas as a direct commercial sale between the manufacturer and the government of Egypt, as opposed to a government-to-government sale.
As part of a multi-agency approval process, the State Department said it takes a number of issues into consideration, including whether the purchaser could use it in a way that violates human rights.
“We want to ensure that when a defense article is being sold to a government, say the government of Egypt, we want to make sure it’s not going to fall in hands of another government … or any individual or organization who wants to do harm,” explained Thompson.
So, why did the State Department license the sale of American-made tear gas to be used by the Egyptian police, when the State Department itself has documented the police’s history of brutality? When I asked this question, I received the following response, in full:
The US government licensed the sale of certain crowd dispersal articles to the government of Egypt. That license was granted after a thorough vetting process and after a multi-agency review of the articles that were requested.
Noticeably absent in that answer was anything about the Egyptian police. When I pressed further and mentioned this WikiLeaks cable—written by U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey describing “routine and pervasive” police brutality and torture in Egypt—the response was immediate.
“I cannot provide any authentication of anything that has been published by the website WikiLeaks,” Thompson said.
Correction: This post previously said that according to CNN, a photographer recently died in Egypt after being hit with tear gas. In fact, the photographer died in Tunisia.