The Israeli embassy in Cairo is tucked away on the top two levels of a twenty-one-floor residential tower ten minutes from Tahrir. It is flanked by graying buildings and a usually traffic-clogged bridge. Nearby are Cairo University and the National Zoo. In the past, its busy location served it well; it was inconspicuous, and under Mubarak, the security around the building was so tight that even reaching the barricades surrounding it felt like a feat. In one of the more revealing signs of change in the New Egypt, however, it has now become the focus of the public’s attention and the site of unobstructed demonstrations.
On August 18, when Israeli forces opened fire in the direction of Egypt’s border, killing five conscripts, hundreds of angered Egyptians spontaneously marched to the embassy in protest. The Israeli shooting had been triggered by an attack on two buses heading from Bersheeba to Eilat; Israeli authorities alleged that the fleeing assailants were Palestinians who had taken advantage of the security vacuum that has emerged in Egypt since the revolution to infiltrate Israeli territory from Gaza via the Sinai. The protesters were outraged; both at the “accidental” killing of the soldiers, and at the implication that it was Egypt’s fault. The army was swift to deploy additional force to protect the already high-security embassy when the news broke, and alongside the usual concrete barricades and corrugated metal shields, there were now tanks, riot police, and rows of armed soldiers. “Give us your guns and send us to Sinai,” the protesters shouted at them. “The blood of our soldiers will not be in vain. Egyptian blood is not cheap.” The soldiers simply stood by.
By the afternoon of the following day, several thousand people had gathered in front of the embassy. They included activists I knew from Tahrir, members of various youth and political coalitions, and above all it seemed, members of Islamist groups. Some waved the Egyptian or Palestinian flags, others the Jihadi one (black with the Arabic lettering “There is no God but Allah”). One such flag, a few metres long, was held around its edges and shaken like a wave, up and down. “Allahu Akbar,” they chanted, calling for “an end to relations with the Zionist State.” Intermittently, the Israeli flag was brought out of backpacks and nylon bags and set aflame; a spectacle that would repeatedly send the crowds into uproars of cheers. The protesters’ primary demand was for the government to expel the Israeli ambassador and close the embassy. “We want him out, out, out!” Occupying what little space they could outside the barricaded building and its overlooking bridge, the crowd—about 3,000 people—set up camp, declaring it an “open-ended sit-in” until their demands were met. (The last such sit-in was in Tahrir in July. It lasted 21 days). A similar sit-in also began outside the Israeli consulate in Alexandria.
As the demonstrations intensified, the interim government—caught between growing popular discontent with the country’s Israel policy and pressure from the military to preserve a precarious status quo—struggled with how to react. In previous months, the government had already faced several demonstrations against Egypt’s close ties with Israel; on August 14, just four days before the attack, there had been a protest outside the Ministerial Cabinet calling for the government to suspend Egyptian gas exports to its neighbor (Egypt has been a principal supplier to Israel according to a deal reached in 2004).
Against this background, political parties, activists, and presidential hopefuls were quick to join ranks with the protesters after the August 18 killings, with many calling on the government to take punitive measures. Along with the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, chief demands included the halting of gas exports and the revision or annulment of the Camp David accords, Egypt’s 1978 peace treaty with Israel. “Gone forever are the days when Israel will kill our children while we do not respond,” presidential candidate and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa tweeted. “Israel and any other [country] must understand that the day our sons get killed without a strong and an appropriate response, is gone and will not come back.”
Initially, the interim government seemed to react with similar indignation. An official request was sent to Israel asking for a formal inquiry into the “reasons and circumstances” surrounding the deaths, and the army’s chief of staff, Sami Enan, went to Sinai to spearhead an Egyptian investigation. On his Facebook page, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf wrote, “Our glorious revolution took place so that Egyptians could regain their dignity at home and abroad. What was tolerated in pre-revolution Egypt will not be in post-revolution Egypt”.
With public pressure mounting, Sharaf—who owes his own appointment to pressure exerted by Tahrir Square protesters on Egypt’s military leadership in March—called an emergency Cabinet meeting. It is reported to have lasted almost five hours, into the early hours of Saturday. That morning, August 20, a statement was posted on the Cabinet’s website announcing that Egypt would recall its ambassador to Israel. The grounds for the recall, according to the announcement, were not only the killings, but also statements made by Israeli officials criticizing Cairo for failing to secure the Sinai (armed militants based there have attacked the gas pipeline that runs through it at least five times since the January 25 protest begun, and have also attacked a police station). When State TV confirmed the announcement—which also denounced the Israeli attacks on Gaza—the news quickly reached euphoric Cairo protesters via Twitter.
But this victory—as the protesters at the embassy saw it—was short-lived. Within hours, the cabinet statement was removed. By afternoon, a spokesman for the Prime Minister had confirmed that it had been only a “draft” that was posted “by mistake.” The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by the long-time Mubarak ally Field Marshal Tantawi, had—it turned out—reproached Sharaf for releasing the statement and offered assurances to Israel that no such decision had been made. That evening, outside the Israeli embassy, where crowds had swelled and the chanting and flag-burning continued, the chief of military police, Major-General Hamdy Badin, told me that it was
out of the question that such a decision would be made. To ask an ambassador to leave or to recall our own ambassador would escalate a situation in a way that we are not ready for and do not want. We will not be asking the ambassador to leave, we will not be recalling our own envoy, and we will not be asking the embassy to remove the flag.
Under the Mubarak regime, relations with Israel were strong, albeit concealed. The 1978 Camp David treaty was a deal between leaders (former president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) that many Egyptians opposed. Economic ties between the two states steadily increased under the tutelage of Mubarak’s business associates, who stood to profit from them, and military cooperation, for example on Gaza, was deep. (Diplomatic cables quote Tantawi saying “We respect Israel. If we did not respect each other it would be a disaster”: one of the military’s great concerns, aside from Iran, has long been Hamas.) Yet many Egyptians continued to harbor deep-rooted animosity towards the neighboring state. The former regime, well aware of this, gave people enough space to air their grievances—Egypt’s protest movement emerged in part from the tradition of demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians, which the government allowed. At the same time, the Mubarak regime worked to keep its relations with Israel as low profile as possible. Back in 2003, when the gas deal with Israel was being negotiated, I proposed writing about it for a state-run local weekly I contributed to. My editor, normally outspoken and a well-respected journalist who stood apart from his submissive state-appointed colleagues, tried to explain that it wouldn’t be possible. When I pressed him, he brought out a single sheet of cheap A4 paper. It was a memo from higher-ups. There would be no talk of the gas deal. Border issues were equally off limits.
With Mubarak now gone, many of his business cronies (including his close friend Hussein Salem, who orchestrated the gas deal) behind bars, and the nation in the grips of a new kind of nationalism, the question of what will become of relations with Israel has become critical. For the ruling Military Council, adhering to Camp David comes at a cost, but until it finds a better alternative—one that includes strategic training, resources, and intelligence support, as well as regional security guarantees—it is worth the price.
But for all the major contenders for Egypt’s new civilian leadership—including both secular and Islamist candidates—maintaining the existing arrangements is intolerable. Indeed, since the fall of Mubarak, almost every political question—from the referendum and the rules for forming parties to the new constitution—has been controversial and divisive. Yet on the Israel issue there has been a wide consensus. In front of the Israeli embassy last week, westernized, English-speaking activists stood side-by-side with Salafis, Muslim Brothers, working class Egyptians, and educated elite. As someone pointed out, this was a “mini-Tahrir.”
On August 20, even as the government was figuring out its own response to the killings, a group of political parties and presidential hopefuls met at the headquarters of the Islamist Al-Wasat party to discuss “how to handle the Israeli question.” The coalition was not only Islamist: it included Amr Moussa; Ayman Nour, the Al-Ghad Party leader; Hisham Al-Bastawisi, the widely-respected judge and presidential candidate; George Ishaq, the founder of Kefaya, the broad-based reform movement; and representatives of the Al-Wafd (liberal in coalition with Islamist parties), Al-Ghad (liberal, secular), El-Hadara (liberal, secular), El-Asala (Islamist) and El-Nahda (Islamist) Parties. After the meeting, the group announced that the Mubarak regime, which was a “strategic treasure” to Israel, is gone forever. “It has been replaced by a strong nation that doesn’t know weakness and knows how to get justice for the blood of its martyrs. In the face of the [Sinai incident], Egyptians have united across ideologies, political parties, police and army and put aside their differences for the sake of the nation.” The coalition announced a list of eight demands to be handed to SCAF. They include banning Israeli naval forces from passing through the Suez Canal, increasing Egyptian armed forces presence in Sinai, and reconsidering the gas deal.
Government sources have since told me that the SCAF and the interim cabinet are being “forced to seriously consider” public demands to reset its Israel policies and that “discussions are taking place.” Troop allowances in the Sinai are likely to be where the interim government presses for change, as well as re-examining the controversial gas deal. “What the Egyptian public wants is important, but many of the demands are too drastic—they would escalate a situation in ways nobody would want,” Major-General Badin told me by phone last week.
The Israeli embassy sit-in was suspended on August 27, one day after a “million man march” in which 8,000-odd protesters demonstrated in Cairo, Alexandria, and governates across Egypt. Although the Israeli ambassador was not asked to leave and the Egyptian envoy to Israeli was not recalled, the protesters could claim a few successes. The Israelis have issued several statements of apology and regret for the August 18 killings, a joint investigation has reportedly begun, more Egyptian troops will be allowed into the Sinai’s Zone C (an area on the eastern border of Sinai where only limited and light-armed Egyptian police presence is allowed according to Camp David).
Perhaps most significantly (and despite general Badin’s insistence that it wouldn’t) the flag over the Israeli embassy had in fact been removed: a young Egyptian, Ahmad El-Shahat scaled the 21-story building and brought it down on the night of August 21, replacing it with an Egyptian one. The “Flagman,” as he came to be known, instantly became a national hero. Hamdeen Sabahi, the presidential hopeful and head of the Karama party, sent “a salute of pride to Ahmad El-Shahat, the public hero who burned the Zionist flag that spoiled the Egyptian air for 30 years.” The governor of Sharqiya, just east of Cairo, honored Shahat with an apartment and job. Across the Arab world too, he was hailed. For seven days, the army left the Egyptian flag on the building, but foreign ministry officials were quick to tell me that “it won’t last. The army is letting the protesters vent steam. Give it a week, the [Israeli] flag will be up again.”
On August 29, at 2:37 PM, it happened. A middle-aged man stuck his head out of the window of the Israeli embassy building’s twentieth floor, scanned the streets and bridge and horizon for possible protesters, and when the coast seemed clear replaced the by-then tattered Egyptian flag with a crisp new Israeli one. A security guard at a building next door who witnessed it said it took about seven minutes. It took about half that time for the news to spread. On Twitter and Facebook, Egyptians quickly started calling for El-Shahat to return to the embassy. “Get that damn flag down,” someone tweeted.
As I write this, no clear resolution to the Israeli issue has emerged. The government is still groping for an approach, stalling, buying time. Some Egyptians have called for a new demonstration at the Israeli embassy; a few, on Wednesday, were already back there, and some of them, on Friday, were calling on SCAF to follow in Turkey’s footsteps after the news broke that Turkey had expelled its own Israeli ambassador over Israel’s failure to apologize for the flotilla incident. Israel has meanwhile sent two warships to the Red Sea border with Egypt in anticipation of militant attacks; Egypt has deployed 1,500 more soldiers into the Sinai with permission from the Israelis; and the investigation into the killings reportedly still continues. The tension between the two states is playing out above all against the reality of rapidly declining security in the Sinai: the Egyptian military is asking for more troop allowances to contain rising extremism by militant groups; while Israel expresses alarm at the threat of those militants using the security void to infiltrate its territory.
For their part, most Egyptians—including the Brotherhood—do not seem to want a new conflict with Israel. (Even Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyaa, one of the most radical Islamist groups, has for the moment, expressed its solidarity with the military.) What they are demanding is redress for what they regard as deep-rooted grievances: about a treaty they believe denies them basic rights to sovereign land (the Sinai); and more significantly, that compels relations with a government that has dealt repeated blows to the Palestinians and to fellow Arab states. The Israeli blockade of Gaza continues to be a key point of contention—including Egypt’s own continued part in that blockade. These grievances may become increasingly critical, as the military struggles to maintain its carefully tended security relationship with Israel amid growing tensions in Gaza, and as Egypt attempts to affect a rapprochement with Hamas even as it tries to control militancy in Sinai. The new political forces that are currently vying to govern the country will be forced to contend with a public that has used determined mass demonstrations to oust a leader who was deeply entrenched in power, and who will most likely continue to use that same form of leverage to press on the question of Israel.