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?