It’s all fun and games until someone storms the Israeli embassy…كل أمتاع ولعبات حتى يقتحم أحد السفارة الإسرائيلية
After taking a break for fasting, celebration, and ‘charging up their faith’, the liberal and leftist groups resumed their obsession with contentious politics (sit-ins, demonstrations, protests, etc.) Despite the failure of a month-long sit-in of July to achieve anything more than the annoyance of the shopkeepers in the downtown area, the liberal left organized yet another demonstration yesterday under the banner of “Correcting the Path” Friday during which they presented the same list of demands:
1. The cessation of sentencing civilians in military trials.
2. The resignation of Prime Minister Sharaf and his cabinet
3. The imposition of minimum and maximum wages in the public sector
4. The cessation of diplomatic relations with Israel.
5. The amendment of the electoral law favoring الفلول the fulul (remnants of the National Democratic Party).
As in July, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Salifists, and other members of Islamist political movements declined to participate in this protest. Instead, the liberal and leftist groups were joined in their endeavors by the Zamalek and Ahly Ultras (think European soccer hulligans) fresh off of violent clashes with the Central Security Forces a few days prior.
Chanting سلمية، سلمية salimiyya, salimiyya (peaceful, peaceful), tens of thousands of people marched from throughout Cairo to Tahrir Square. Once there, banners were hung while a smaller march departed to the Interior Ministry. When I arrived around 4:00, the square was filled with various groups of people discussing politics and chanting for the resignation of Field Marshall Tantawy, while others (myself included) gathered along the fence line to take in the spectacle. By 6:00pm, those in the square had began to disperse satisfied with reminding SCAF that the liberal and left had not dissolved into nothingness over the course of Ramadan.
A couple of thousand individuals, however, were not done and began to march the four miles to the Israeli embassy.
To understand this development and the series of unfortunate events that followed it is first imperative to place them in their broader regional context. On August 18, while pursuing a group of Palestinian militants across the border, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) accidentally killed six Egyptian soldiers. An Israeli statement of regret failed to mollify the Egyptian street, which gathered in front of the Israeli embassy for more than a week demanding the cessation of diplomatic relations (the recall of the Egyptian ambassador and the expulsion of his Israeli counterpart.) Instead of ceding to these demands, SCAF elected to construct a wall in front of the Israeli embassy. Reminding Egyptians of a similar structure between Israel proper and the West Bank (and another structure being constructed by Egypt along its border with Gaza), the wall quickly became a target for acts of protests (specifically graffiti and public urination.)
Meanwhile, on August September 2 the UN Security Council’s Panel of Inquiry on the May 2010 Flotilla Incident was released sparking a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey. While a convoluted legal argument found the Israeli blockade legal, it concluded that IDF forces used excessive and unreasonable force when storming the ship thereby resulting in the deaths of eight Turkish nationals (and one American of Turkish descent.) These conclusions and Israel’s continued reluctance to apologize for its own actions did not please the Turkish government. As a result, Prime Minister Erodgan immediately moved to break diplomatic ties with Israel not only withdrawing its ambassador and expelling the Israeli one, but also suspending military relations and restricting the growing trade between the two countries.
Naturally, the Egyptian street is not ignorant of the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. Moreover, as Prime Minister Erodgan is not only visiting Egypt on Monday to discuss his plans for a Middle East trade zone with SCAF but also has announced his intention to give a speech to the Egyptian people from Tahrir Square, a comparison between his reaction to Israeli aggression and that of SCAF is unavoidable. Erodgan’s populace unlike that of SCAF’s was not demanding the suspension of diplomatic relations. Furthermore, the UN report declared the legality of Israeli actions. In sum, Erodgan had a way out. He did not have to suspend diplomatic relations let alone the military relations and weapons trade that have aided the Turkish military in its fight against Kurdish repels in southeastern Turkey. Thus, in the eyes of Egyptians, Erodgan elected to voluntarily place the rights of his citizens above the special interests of the Turkish military, while SCAF continued the Mubarak era policies of placing special (especially military) interests above the rights and desires of its citizens.
Frustrated by SCAF’s continued refusal to instigate reforms in both domestic and international politics, some protestors took matters into their own hands. When they reached the embassy, they began to destroy the newly-constructed cement wall. A few hours later, after the destruction of the wall, hundreds of people stormed the building while the small army unit charged with guarding the embassy looked on. When Central Security Forces trickled into to secure the area, they clashed with the growing number of protestors setting off a series of street battles. Meanwhile, a few of those inside the high-rise managed to break into the Israeli embassy and began to dump thousands of embassy records from windows.
In total, the events of last night not only forced the Israel ambassador and his staff to flee Cairo, but also left three protestors dead and hundreds injured. Today, Prime Minster Sharf attempted to tender his resignation to SCAF (for at least the third time since his appointment), but the overture was refused.
Moreover importantly, perhaps, these events paint a very negative picture of the Egyptian Revolution. Storming an embassy not only is severe diplomatic breach, but it evokes the image of the last time an embassy was stormed in the Middle East: The U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. This should be the very last image Egyptian revolutionaries want to present to the international community already suffering from an irrational fear of Islamists (who ironically enough were not involved in yesterday’s events.) Domestically, SCAF now has additional evidence to paint the protestors as disturbers of the peace bent on destroying Egypt. As a result it may gather the political cover necessary to ratchet up its repression of protestors and the freedoms of assembly, press, and speech.
Despite their frustrations, protestors cannot put the cart before the horse. The existence of Israel and its oppressive treatment of Palestinians were long used by Arab authoritarian regimes to district their populaces from their own oppressed existences. Now, as the Egyptians are on the verge of throwing off their oppressors, this red herring has reared its ugly head and threatens to distract the populace from the more important issues at hand. This fact is not lost among many of the liberal and leftists political activists and movements many of whom condemned the events of last night.
To revise the nature of Egypt’s relationship with Israel, protestors must start with the creation of an elected government accountable to their own interests and demands. They must start by rekindling the unity of the January 25 Revolution around the issue of electoral law and lack of international electoral observers that present SCAF and other entrenched interests with the opportunity to abort the revolution.