State of Alert in Egypt after Breach at Israeli Embassy

The assault on the Israeli embassy in Cairo on Friday represented a dangerous escalation of tensions between the protesters and the transitional regime. The military declared a “state of alert” and cancelled the vacations of all the police. I don’t think the incident seriously threatens Egyptian relations with Israel, though the Israeli ambassador and his family were constrained to leave the country. Those relations are still in the hands of the military and the cabinet of PM Essam Sharaf, who are committed to the Camp David peace treaty. Rather, I think the focus on the Israeli embassy is a sign of tension within Egyptian politics.

A terrorist attack by Palestinian radicals on Israeli tourists at Eilat a couple of weeks ago, which killed 8 civilians, elicited an Israeli response that led to the deaths of about 15 Palestinians. Five Egyptian border guards (i.e. troops) were caught in the crossfire, provoking intense anger in Cairo. (If Mexican troops inadvertently killed 5 US border guards, you can imagine the emotional meltdown over at Fox Cable News). This Israeli response was nevertheless far more restrained than would once have been the case, and it fell short of what the hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman demanded. But the new, uncertain atmosphere in Egypt induced caution in Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu. And, again uncharacteristically, Israel’s far right government expressed regret for the Egyptian deaths, though it stopped short of a real apology.

The Egyptian New Left came back out to Tahrir Square on Friday in the tens of thousands. They are demanding that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the de facto rulers of the country despite the appointment of a civilian prime minister and cabinet, specify more firmly when exactly parliamentary elections will be held and a hand-over of power from the military to civilians will take place.

The protesters were not joined by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Muslim political groups, who have a tacit alliance with the military and who calculate that public patience with further demonstrations has worn thin. The Muslim groups are gearing up for canvassing and campaigning in the forthcoming elections, while I fear the New Left is still stuck in a rut of bringing out demonstrators on Fridays.

I spent a lot of time in Tahrir Square this summer, and one of the demands you saw most prominently on banners was that civilians cease being tried in military courts. Egypt’s civil judiciary is relatively professional and upright, and the Mubarak regime was frustrated that it kept insisting on proper procedure, so Mubarak began trying regime opponents in military courts, which have less respect for freedom of speech and are willing to convict people for even thinking about dissident actions. Reformers maintain that since the February revolution, 12,000 civilians have been arrested and remanded for trial in the military courts.

In fact, the military went so far as to arrest Asma Mahfouz, a young woman who is a leader of the April 6 movement and whose Youtube video calling for the January 25 demonstrations in Tahrir Square last winter had gone viral and played an important role in kicking off the revolution. Ms. Mahfouz is among those who have called for the military to go back to the barracks, and she was arrested in August. She was, however, released soon thereafter.

From the point of view of the young pro-labor, pro-democracy New Left, the revolution against Hosni Mubarak is only half-finished, since the government is still full of officials from the old regime, many police and security personnel with blood on their hands have not been tried, and the country is being ruled by a military junta.

The country’s military leader, Air Marshall Hussein Tantawi, replied to these demands by charging the April 6 movement with receiving foreign funds, implying that they are American agents. (“Democracy promotion” funds from the US Agency for International Development have been viewed with suspicion in Egypt, though there is no evidence that April 6 was a recipient). The young dissidents point out with some mirth that the Egyptian military receives $1.5 billion a year from the United States in aid, so who is the recipient of foreign funds here?

Most of the Egyptian New Left youth leaders have been wise about leaving Israel and Palestine out of their discourse, since Mubarak had always used that issue to sidestep domestic concerns. Moreover, for the Egyptian transition to democracy to succeed, it is important that the US and Europe be supportive.

But a small section of the demonstrators who came out on Friday appear to believe that the Egyptian army’s relationship with Israel is an Achilles’ heel that can be used as a wedge issue to delegitimate the SCAF. So a few hundred of the protesters at Tahrir marched the 2 miles to northern Giza to demonstrate in front of the Israeli embassy. But then about 30 of them started tearing down its security wall and late Friday night breached the front door, reaching a waiting room and throwing Hebrew literature out of the window.

The Egyptian army was slow to intervene, but eventually chased the demonstrators away. Some 450 persons were wounded, and the scene in front of the embassy looked like a war zone, with cars set on fire.

The Egyptian military’s slowness to respond is suspicious. Perhaps they thought the blast wall they built would not be so easy to breach. But it is also possible that the SCAF calculated that such an incident will actually strengthen the hand of the military and reduce Western pressure to democratize more quickly and thoroughly, as well as creating an image of the protesters as violent hooligans endangering Egypt’s peace with its neighbors.

In either case, the story is not the Israeli embassy, which is just the football. The story is who won a goal on Friday. Did the protesters tag the military as in bed with the Israelis and Americans and so emblematic of the bad old Mubarak days? Or did the military cleverly give this small group of protesters enough rope to hang themselves and to discredit the youth protesters in general?

31 Responses

  1. Great insight into the Arab Spring along with clear cut impartial, analysis on the intricate political situation.
    A lot of perception & reading of the situation / picture got cleared.

  2. Think this attack on Israeli Embassy will unnecessarily complicate issues & is a recipe for disaster in Egypt. Maybe the handiwork of the same people who are against the rising of the Egyptian People & their longing for freedom/ democracy.

    Would love to know more about what the author feels & his viewpoint.

  3. It is the whole embassy staff who have left, leaving one person in place as acting ambassador.

    I think that fact makes one think that matters are more serious than Israel is suggesting.

    According to them, it was “only the consulate” that was breached, and “only” leaflets were thrown out of the window. Egyptian reports say that documents marked “confidential” were seen.

    Some spin there! In order to pretend that it wasn’t a big thing, which in reality it evidently was.

  4. Juan,
    What role is Israel expecting to play in this situation? I am thinking not only of Israel/Egypt but also Israel/Turkey relationships. And what response do you believe the Obama administration is apt to make?

  5. I don’t view winners here, I view losers. Everyone had something to lose.

    The protestors lost some prestige in the eyes of Americans and Europe by attacking Israel’s precious embassy. Israel lost even more of their sense of security, which will prompt the public to support any irrational policy responses. The Egyptian military and temp politicians lost further legitimacy if their soldiers can be massacred with impunity and are seen as beholden to foreign powers.

    More chaos and division were sowed. It’s a step backwards for everyone.

  6. I wonder if the anti-Israeli protests were inspired by what’s been happening between Turkey & Israel. I don’t buy the explanation that the Egyptian soldiers (border guards) were caught in “cross-fire”, nor I suspect do many Egyptians.

    I also wonder if the MB stayed away because they knew there was going to be an anti Israel element to the protests.

    Seems there were protests all over Iraq on Friday, Baghdad, Kut, Abu Ghraib, Rutba, Falluja, Hilla, Kerbala & Diwanya.

    Juan – do you know or have any theories as to why there are no protests in Aleppo (Syria) ?

  7. “Moreover, for the Egyptian transition to democracy to succeed, it is important that the US and Europe be supportive,” Says Professor Cole.
    Would you shed some light professor Cole, how much the US and Europe does not want democracy to succeed in Egypt.
    How much democracy in Egypt is against the interest of the US & Europe?
    As Democracy in Iran & Chile was not in the best interest of the powers at the time.

    • What woolly thinking! The Egyptian democratic transition looks precisely like others that the US has supported in recent years, not like a Communist coming to power! Look at the people power movement against Marcos in the Philippines of the 1980s. The US ultimately sided with Cory Aquino against Marcos. It isn’t the 1950s or early 1970s any more!

      • They have no choice but to side with the people now because if they didn’t they would lose what legitamacy they have in the eyes of the Eygptians (assuming they have any left)

        “It isn’t the 1950s or early 1970s any more!”

        I recall that Mubarak and Ben Ali were ousted in 2011 professor Cole I think it is fair to assume that they knew that these two were not the paragons of democracy that the egyptians and tunisians wanted.

      • Public opinion polling in Egypt (and elsewhere in the Arab world) shows a tremendously negative view of the United States and it’s client state Israel. If any sort of representative government were to come to power in Egypt, it may be more hostile to Israel and U.S. meddling.

        This is one obvious way that democracy in Egypt is against US interests…doesn’t seem so woolly to me.

  8. A quick question for Professor Cole: where did you come up with this term, “Egyptian New Left”? I don’t think the al-Masry al-Youm article you posted references such a thing?

  9. “In either case, the story is not the Israeli embassy, which is just the football. The story is who won a goal on Friday.”

    I’m in general agreement. As is often the case, Israel is getting used as the proverbial political football to resolve an intra-Arab dispute. But the new left’s behavior is turning increasingly irresponsible. I suppose that most are too young to have fought in the battles of the 60s and 70s against Israel and thus have no first-hand experience of the pain of war. At this point, their demands center around cutting off diplomatic relations. But tomorrow? As we’ve seen throughout the decades, regional stability is fragile and events often take on a momentum of their own.

    Let’s hope the spirit of Tahrir returns and that the haters and manipulators get shunted aside quickly. If they get to control the narrative, it will lead to more suffering on both sides.

  10. You may be overlooking, Juan, the extreme distaste the educated Egyptian public has had for the ‘too friendly’ relation between Egypt and Israel that has endured for the last 30 years and the concern that it will remain too friendly. Understand that Israel is a alien implant in the heart of the Middle East and, not content to sit quietly, it is constantly expanding at the expense of surrounding Arab lands and constantly brutalizing its neighbors.

    • I think you’re underestimating Egyptians’ ambivalence about all this. Sure, they are generally appalled at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. But there are lots of resentments over the sacrifices they had to bear in the wars, and I’ve lived in Egypt for years without having ever heard anyone want to go back to that situation.

      • You’re right Juan, the Egyptian people don’t want war, the people of anywhere rarely want war.

        Over the last 30 years more than a few Egyptian migrants (Muslim & Christian) have told me they left, in part at least, because the ordinary people got nothing from the Peace Accord.

        Only the military got a dividend, more weapons, more money from their business interests, more power; all paid for with US & Israeli money and their active connivance & collaboration.

        In particular they resent the domination of the military in commerce. Many have become small businessmen, something they could only dream of in Egypt.

  11. I think the the protesters played right into the hands of the military. They are seen as people that are quick to take hammers and gasoline to anybody they don’t like. In other words, they behaved like thugs, not revolutionaries.

  12. I suspect this “small group of protesters” is the tip of an Iceberg of Righteous Impatience with sixty years of Palestinian Degradation and trigger-happy Israeli policy. Blow-back is a powerful force, not to be underestimated (take note Mr.Obama & Ms. Clinton!). I read that the Israelis feel “international norms” have been violated. Ah, the bittersweet irony!

    I must, though, thank you Juan Cole, for yr Very Cool Head.
    Steady as she goes! This blog is of great value to me, in spite of the In-left splintering going on. Thus I’ll budget another modest monetary contribution (the best I can do trekking below the poverty-level).

  13. Thanks for this analysis. There is no chance that anything of this breadth and depth will appear in the “lamestream media.”

  14. I’ve read reports in uk media – guardian and telegraph – that the initial attack on the curtain wall was carried out, not by the main body of tahrir protestors or even extremist political factions, but by “ultras”, hardcore football hooligans. If so, then the second scenario, that of a clever power play by the military, becomes much more likely.

  15. Dear Dr. Cole

    might it be that you underestimate the resentment the Egyptians feel toward the Israelis after decades of watching theire fellow muslims in Gaza being abused?

    And that viral video, 7% of Egypians have internet acess, befor Hosni turned it off, you think it made a difference in Egypt?

  16. The Isrealis killed are civillians and soldiers.No proof that palestinians did the eilat attack.The bus was a military transport vihecle.Soldiers with their weapons routinly travel on buses and civilian cars, walk the streets,malls and pizzarias.These facts are not to be overlooked.

    • “The bus was a military transport vihecle”
      The bus was not a military transport vehicle.
      It was a regular Egged bus.
      “Soldiers with their weapons routinly travel on buses and civilian cars, walk the streets,malls and pizzarias”
      So what are they supposed to do when they travel to or from home(FYI,they only wear uniforms traveling to and from home).

  17. Very insightful analysis.
    @George: Baloney. Among the Israelis killed were two middle-aged women and their husbands. Not military personnel by any stretch of the imagination.

  18. Baloney,read my first sentence.What?We have an aversion to killing civilians now?Or only Israelis count.

  19. Prof. Cole,
    The symbolic significance of the Wall around the embassy that was created and then destroyed in the ritual-like event could not be underestimated.

  20. A journalist from The Arabist blog interviewed the youths who attacked the Israeli embassy. They were “ultras” – members of very aggressive fan clubs of Cairo’s two major soccer teams whose skills at fighting the police are well honed. They claim to be anarchists–not caring too much about the government- but have strong distaste for Israel’s actions in Palestine. Neither religious or members of the New Left. They are the Egyptian version of British soccer hooligans.

    • No, they are not the Egyptian version of British soccer hooligans. It was not mindless violence, there was a political point – you’ve just said it: “but have strong distaste for Israel’s actions in Palestine.”

      Mind you, I’ve seen two blog posts now from ‘nice’ middle/upper-class Egyptians, distancing themselves from these events. They’re being a bit fastidious.

      It’s not like that among British soccer hooligans; there are plenty of middle-class soccer hooligans in Britain. They don’t have to be denominated as to be shunned. One former hooligan is called David Cameron, though I don’t think he was interested in soccer.

      Finally, who do you think carries out all political violence, all over the world? Precisely the type of young male seen here. Sometimes they join the army, and kill legally, sometimes they have another allegiance.

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