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Storming the Israeli Embassy in Cairo: The Greater Context

Breaking down the barrier outside the embassy

Seven months since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, the nation is still in the process of democratic transition, and the focus of the world has greatly receded. Yesterday, September 9, could threaten to draw back the world’s eye, and possibly serve to confirm many misgivings held about the readiness of Egypt for democracy. It would be a mistake to judge so simply; hopefully this context will fill in the gaps over recent events.

On a superficial level the actions of Egyptian protestors to storm the Israeli Embassy has parallels to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. One narrative current is that just as the Iranian protests began as a liberal movement only to be overwhelmed by extremist religious forces, the Egyptian revolution may bear a similar fate. While this is still an open possibility, feared by many both within Egypt and abroad, yesterday’s events do not reinforce this narrative.

The Israeli Embassy is located at the top of an Egyptian highrise apartment surrounding by like buildings in the Cairo neighborhood of Giza, along a major thoroughfare. Protests at the embassy have been frequent since the departure of Mubarak, but have always remained peaceful, though vitriolic. On an earlier occasion several months ago protests were dismissed forcefully by security personnel.

The most recent surge in anger against Israel, however, began three weeks ago following the death of five Egyptian border guards in Sinai, at the hands of the Israeli military. That day Israel suffered a horrible terrorist attack, believed conducted by militants from Gaza who crossed into Israel through the demilitarized Sinai border. In pursuit of these criminals Israel crossed the Egyptian border in violation of the Camp David Accords, and killed the Egyptian officers accidentally in the process. Israel issued a statement of ‘great regret’ at their deaths, but stopped short of issuing an official apology. They have also resisted Egyptian calls to conduct a joint investigation.

For several days afterwards protestors gathered at the Embassy, chanting for the expulsion of the ambassador. One protestor even scaled the building to its roof and replaced the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one. This breach of diplomatic protocol was celebrated widely, with ‘Flagman’ (punning off Spiderman) receiving the gift of an apartment from the Giza governor. It was clear that on this occasion the people were allowed to vent their anger. On the diplomatic front, however, the government issued equivocal statements, drawing the frustration of the people. After a few days the protests subsided, and security forces cleared the area of the few remaining protestors.

A few days later the Egyptian government contracted to build a wall in front of the Israeli Embassy, stating it was meant to protect residents of the area from any future demonstrations. ‘Egypt above all’ was written prominently across its face, but it is difficult to imagine the wall being received as anything other than a provocation – resembling the security fence/apartheid wall in Israel/the West Bank, depending on perspective. Yet a scheduled protest at the wall a few days ago fell flat, drawing only tens of demonstrators.

In the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting in which protests largely subsided, a call was issued for a major demonstration on September 9, labeled ‘The Friday of Correcting the Path’. Its main demand was to put an end to the military trial of civilians, but also included a call for a clear timetable to transfer power to civilian rule, judicial independence, and further purging state institutions of former regime figures. Though Islamist political forces had earlier spoken out forcefully against the military trial of civilians, their largest representatives boycotted this protest, opting instead to not put additional pressure on the ruling military council. The day of the protest between 10-35,000 demonstrators descended on Tahrir Square. These were mostly liberal groups and youthful revolutionaries, whose numbers, though impressive, did not measure up to the numerical strength of earlier protests. Instead of concentrating solely at Tahrir Square, however, bands dispersed for separate protests at the Interior Ministry, the People’s Assembly, the Radio and Television Building – and the Israeli Embassy.

Ever since forcibly dismissing a sit-in protest at Tahrir Square on August 1, which had lasted three weeks and prevented all traffic from accessing this major hub, the security forces had occupied the central garden area of Tahrir and prevented all protests from accessing the area. The government relented, however, to allow the September 9 protest, but warned they would be responsible for their own security, and the police withdrew from the area, as well as from other major government institutions. At the Interior Ministry, for example, protestors were able to draw graffiti on the walls and remove the official insignia, while security restrained itself behind the walls.

In addition to the liberal and youth demonstrators, however, there was a surprise participant in the protests – soccer hooligans. The three largest teams in the Egyptian division each have their own groups of rowdy followers, who often clash with each other as well as the police. These groups had contributed greatly to the Egyptian revolution, providing discipline and organization – along with the Muslim Brotherhood – when their demonstrations came under attack. Since then, however, they have returned to soccer.

A few days before September 9 there was a relatively minor soccer match involving one of these squads, at the end of which the hooligans began chanting slogans against the police and the now incarcerated former minister of the interior. It is not clear if the provocation was also physical, but the police thereafter rushed into the crowd and began beating the hooligans. Nearly a hundred people on both sides suffered injuries, and the hooligans vowed revenge after several of their group were arrested.

This event rallied the three different groups of hooligans together, who descended united to Tahrir Square. This swelled the numbers and vibrancy of the protest, but also de-dignified it, as they spent the day chanting curses against the police. Yet for the most part, however, they and the other protestors exercised restraint, with one group even issuing a public declaration it withdrew from the protest at the end of the day, to shield itself should violence occur later from unknown ‘thugs’. This hooligan group had split off from the main demonstration in Tahrir to protest directly at the Ministry of Interior.

A second group, however, went to the Israeli Embassy. They and many others carried hammers, seeking to destroy the recently erected wall. Numbers swelled as Egyptians, frustrated by the response of the government to the border killings, compared the sharp rise in condemnation issued to Israel by Turkey, in response to the death of its citizens on board last year’s Freedom Flotilla. It took several hours to demolish the wall, as protestors cheered and encouraged joyously. Some even repeated the action of Flagman, and lowered the Israeli flag once again.

Around this time a group of unknown protestors, numbering about 100, rushed into the building housing the embassy and ascended the floors, breaking into at least part of the upper complex. They then proceeded to hurl documents to the crowd below, seemingly seeking a Wikileaks-type moment. About an hour later, security arrived en masse and bombarded the area with tear gas. Street fighting erupted thereafter throughout the night, injuring around 1000 and killing three.

Israel’s response was swift. The recently returned ambassador – not at the embassy – evacuated Cairo with his family and staff. Israel issued a statement asking for the United States to help secure the embassy – clearly a slap in the face to the Egyptian government. It denied that protestors had entered the embassy and had only apprehended pamphlets. Israeli sources also state the Egyptian government conducted an emergency raid to free six people inside the embassy. I have not seen confirmation of this from the Egyptian side, but neighboring residents interviewed stated the embassy was empty, and had been for the last three weeks. A friend connected with the US Embassy in Cairo stated, however, that it was fully conceivable personnel could be in the embassy at such an odd time over the weekend.

In the days to come more facts will emerge. For now it is hoped this greater context will demonstrate the dissimilarity to the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979. First and foremost, this was the action of either liberal activists, soccer hooligans, or, as many revolutionaries have accused in like incidents over the past several months, ‘thugs’ working on behalf of the former regime to stir up trouble and ruin the reputation of the Egyptian revolution. It was not done by Islamic extremists, who were wholly absent from the day’s protest. Most Egyptians find the politics of the Israeli government reprehensible in their treatment of the Palestinian issue. Large numbers oppose the peace treaty, and not a few would apply their approbation on the Jews as a whole. The storming of the embassy, however, had more to do with the work of a small minority, and the aftermath was a battle with security, reminding many of its severity under the Mubarak regime.

At the same time, it should be recognized that many Egyptians hold no ill will toward Jews, and have no desire to enter into war with Israel. Almost none would defend the policies of Israel, and most would have the treaty adjusted. The masses were enthused following the revolution that Egyptian foreign policy might more closely follow the popular will. Yet harboring conviction that ‘peace with Israel’ was largely imposed on Egypt from abroad through the grip of Mubarak, six months since his departure Egyptians find they still have no voice on this issue. It is not that Egyptians wish a rush to war; they desire instead a reflection of sovereignty.

Yet some do call for a semblance of war in terms of a peaceful march on Jerusalem, ready to die as martyrs by the millions. While this tends toward being an extreme Islamic position, ratcheting up rhetoric against Israel is an easy populist political play. The storming of the embassy was a shameful act. While most Egyptians condemned the action, many were eager to compare its lack of real damage with the blockade of Gaza, expanding settlements, and other breaches of international law issuing real suffering on Palestinians, for which there is less world outrage.

By all accounts Egyptians should act from respect for diplomatic laws and agreements. There is far too much dismissive anti-Israeli sentiment on the street, reflective of abject rejection of this enemy. September 9, however, was not the first step toward the anti-Western takeover of the revolution. It was either a reaction driven by frustration of impotence on the Israeli issue, or a counterrevolutionary measure to contrast with the ‘stability’ of the previous regime. More than likely both factors are in play, besides others.

It is a worrisome sign, by all accounts. If the Israeli Embassy can be violated, then what about other embassies, institutions, or places of worship? Many people note that the term ‘revolution’ is a misnomer for the experience of Egypt. Revolutions are violent, conducted by people with insatiable ambition, frustration, or hunger. Such ambition may exist among Islamists, but their conduct has been generally wise and prudent. Such frustration exists among liberals and the youth, and their frustration has amplified in the transitional period. Such hunger exists among much of the lower and working classes.

Too much should not be made of these possibilities. Storming the Israeli Embassy, though incredibly foolish and illegal, was not particularly violent. Egyptians are not a violent people by nature, as has been confirmed a hundred times over during the last half year. The outcome of the ‘revolution’ is still an open matter, and progress is needed toward the promised democracy. What is needed now on the part of the West is not a knee-jerk reaction to events, but continued support for a democratic transition. This may well produce anti-Western or anti-Israeli policies. Yet it will also produce sovereignty; that its government might be of, by, and for the people. This is what the Egyptian people desire. They do not desire Iran.

For a sample prayer about these matters, click here. Please note it was written before the embassy was actually stormed.

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