US firm's teargas used against Tahrir Square protesters
Egypt's military junta fired CS gas cartridges made by Combined Systems Inc of Pennsylvania, say demonstrators
The teargas used by interior ministry troops in Cairo's Tahrir Square is supplied by a US company. Demonstrators say cartridges retrieved from the scene are branded with the name and address of Combined Systems Inc (CSI).
The firm is located in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. It specialises in supplying what it calls "crowd control devices" to armies and "homeland security agencies" around the world. It also manufactures lethal military equipment.
Protesters say the CS gas seems more powerful than that used by Egyptian police during the country's last popular uprising in February. "It's stronger, it burns your face, it makes you feel like your whole body is seizing up," one witness said. He added: "It doesn't seem to be combated by Coke or vinegar."
Experts told the Guardian the gas was likely to be standard CS gas, but the effects could be exacerbated by physical exertion.
As well as the effects of the teargas, protesters have suffered grave injuries to their heads and faces from rubber bullets. There are also reports of live ammunition being used. Dozens of people have been taken to makeshift hospitals after inhaling the choking gas fired by the Central Security Forces.
The export of teargas to foreign law enforcement agencies is not prohibited. CSI has also sold teargas to the Israeli police, where it has been deployed against Palestinian demonstrators, as well as, reportedly, to the regime of Tunisia's ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Nevertheless, the revelation that people are being gassed and hurt by US-manufactured projectiles is embarrassing for the Obama administration.
"We have seen the illegitimate and indiscriminate use of teargas," Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Cairo, said, of Egypt's most recent street protests, as well as the original revolution in February. "There are a few cartridges from Italy but the vast majority are from the USA."
She said teargas did not constitute direct military aid, since it was sold to the interior ministry rather than the army. But she added: "Ideally governments should be verifying who they are selling teargas to."
Morayef said the gas was having a devastating effect on its victims, with everyone left choking, and hundreds forced to seek medical treatment. Protesters have also retrieved 12mm rubber bullet cartridges made in Italy. "One person I know ended up coughing up blood," she said. Human Rights Watch intended to examine the canisters to discover exactly what kind of gas was being used, she added.
Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at Leeds University, said police in Cairo were almost certainly using conventional CS gas. "It's a standard riot control agent which has been around for a very long time," he said.
Hay said its effects were extremely unpleasant. "It's an eye and respiratory tract irritant, largely. It will also cause skin irritation."
The chemical compound used in CS gas – 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile – was "perfectly legitimate", with many commercial companies involved in selling it, and domestic governments willing to make use of it in riot situations, he added.
US army trials showed CS gas had a far more serious effect on people taking part in physical activity than those sitting passively, sometimes leaving its victims needing intensive care afterwards. The way to get rid of it was "constant irrigation" to wash away the affected areas, Hay said.
There was no immediate comment from CSI.
The company's website says it was founded in 1981. It adds: "Combined Systems Inc (CSI) is a US-based firm that supports military forces and law enforcement agencies around the world. CSI is a premier engineering, manufacturing and supply company of tactical munitions and crowd control devices globally to armed forces, law enforcement, corrections and homeland security agencies.
"[…] In addition to its military products, CSI markets its innovative line of less lethal munitions, tactical munitions and crowd-control products to domestic law enforcement agencies under its law enforcement brand name, CTS. CSI also supports its wide base of international military and law enforcement customers with its line of non-lethal munitions."
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.