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Tuesday, Sep. 20, 2011
Anger boiled over in Egypt on Sept. 9 when a mob attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The riots prompted Israeli diplomats to evacuate the embassy and leave the country. The attack reflects the deep-rooted ill will toward Israel that flows through much of the Egyptian public.
But there is more to the mob incident than ambivalence toward their neighbor: Fanning the flames of discontent is widespread disappointment at events since former President Hosni Mubarak was removed from office.
Many Egyptians feel their revolution has been stolen from them. And rumors that the embassy breach was the product of provocateurs and government agents fuels the anger.
Egypt is Israel's oldest partner among Arab nations. The two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, a bold and visionary move that cost President Anwar Sadat his life two years later when he was assassinated by radical Islamic extremists.
The proximate cause of the recent Egyptian anger was the killing last month of five Egyptian police officers by Israeli soldiers. The Israelis were in hot pursuit of militants who had crossed the lightly patrolled border between the two countries to attack civilians at a nearby Israeli resort.
That incident lit the fuse of long-smoldering discontent created by the sense that there has been neither a peace dividend nor progress toward the resolution of issues that concern many Egyptians — in particular the fate of the Palestinian people. Israel is seen as intransigent and unyielding, continuing to occupy Arab territory.
There is another factor at work as well. That is the growing feeling among Egyptians that their revolution has been stolen. While Mr. Mubarak has been forced from office, he is one of the few leaders from the former power structure who have lost a job.
Indeed, his is the only trial of leaders of the former regime. Meanwhile, military courts had been created to try as many as 14,000 protesters who fought the government earlier in the year. The pace of those trials provided a stark contrast to the glacial pace of the former president's own.
Indeed, the demonstrators who gathered in Tahrir Square on Sept. 9 were originally "correcting the path of the revolution." They have been criticizing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the government since Mr. Mubarak's ouster.
Among other reforms, they want to end the military tribunals, the announcement of dates for general elections, and the removal of former ruling party members from key institutions such as the government, banks, and schools and universities.
The crowd then marched toward the Israeli Embassy and, inexplicably, the police withdrew, promising to intervene if violence erupted. It did and they did not. A wall was breached, and then the entire building, forcing staffers to take refuge in the top floors. Rioters took the Israeli flag and dumped documents on the streets.
It is not clear why security forces did not intervene when the crowd's intentions became clear. There is speculation that the government may have sought the violence to channel anger on the street away from the government's failure to make substantive change; alternatively, some suggest that the goal was to demonstrate the need for the military to take a firmer grip and to do more to prevent chaos from spreading.
Adding to the combustibility of the situation was the presence of "the Ultras," hard-core soccer supporters known for their violence. The group has had run-ins with the police in the past and even showed up at the Mubarak trial promising more. There is dark speculation that the group was encouraged to join the Sept. 9 protests to push them over the edge.
The incident has been an embarrassment for the military and a black eye for the new government. It has promised to re-establish order and to find and try those individuals responsible for the embassy breach. The reactivation of the country's emergency law — "to protect the peace and national security of the country" — will make that easier. There also are reports that the military trials have been suspended.
For its part, the Israeli government recognizes the difficulties that the authorities in Cairo face and has said it will stick to the peace agreement. The fact is that democratic uprisings throughout the region are making pro-Israel foreign policies even harder to support in the Arab world.
Hopefully, the government in Tel Aviv will recognize that the anger felt on the Arab street has been nurtured by its own intransigence; difficult though the current situation is, it can get worse. The failure to anticipate this future is a striking failure of the current Israeli government.
The Egyptian authorities also know well that peace with Israel is in their country's interest. At the same time, they cannot disregard the sentiment of the mass of their citizens. They must do more to convince the Egyptian public of the value of that agreement.
At the same time, they must do more to root out holdouts from the old regime and respond to the democratic aspirations of the people who stood up to the Mubarak government. Neither task is easy, but both are essential.