- Whilst the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo has been widely criticised in Egypt, the incident is reflective of a deep-rooted and widespread hostility towards Israel within large parts of Egyptian society, fuelled by anti-Israel propaganda.
- The Israel-Egypt peace treaty is a cornerstone of Israeli security in the region, and Israel’s response has been measured in order to calm the situation and bring about a return to normalcy.
- In Egypt, some fear the authorities will use the opportunity to take a firmer stance against the grass-roots protest movement.
What happened at the weekend?
- On the night of Friday, 9 September, an angry mob stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo. Most of the embassy staff were not present, but six Israeli security guards were trapped inside a secure room for several hours whilst the embassy, housed on several floors of a multi-storey building, was ransacked. After urgent diplomatic efforts by the Israeli government, including a direct appeal to US President Barack Obama to intervene, an Egyptian commando team entered the embassy and extracted the trapped men. Most of the Israeli diplomatic staff then left Egypt. Three Egyptians were killed in clashes between Egyptian protestors and Egyptian security forces outside the embassy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was apparently unable to directly reach Egyptian interim leader Field Marshal Mohamad Tantawi in the midst of the crisis.
- The incident was reportedly triggered when a protest against the Egyptian Interior Ministry by a group of hard-core football fans merged with a regular Friday demonstration against the Israeli embassy. The football fans were apparently protesting over clashes between fans and police earlier in the week, but diverted their anger against the Israeli embassy. Many more protestors then joined them.
- The events followed an incident three weeks ago, in which a crowd gathered at the embassy, with one individual scaling the building and pulling down the flag, receiving national acclaim as a result.
- This event also followed a series of terror attacks on 18 August in which a group crossed into Israel from Egypt, resulting in the deaths of seven Israelis. Five Egyptian security personnel were killed in crossfire as Israeli troops pursued the terrorists, leading to a spike in anti-Israel feeling.
What explains hostility within Egypt for Israel?
- The storming of the embassy in Cairo has been widely criticised in Egypt. Nonetheless, the incident is reflective of a deep-rooted, widespread and extreme hostility towards Israel within large parts of Egyptian society. Coming to power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak chose to manage the peace with Israel only at the level of strategic cooperation, maintained by a small number of officials at the very top echelons of the Egyptian government. Egypt was unwilling to develop the peace and build an open relationship between the two societies.
- Though the situation has been exacerbated by the lack of progress in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, even at times of optimism in the peace process – such as in the wake of the Oslo Accords or after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza – Egypt did not take the opportunity to significantly warm up the relationship.
- Official Egyptian media has promoted anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic propaganda. It has served the interests of the regime to focus the dissatisfaction of the Egyptian public on Israel, which distracted from their own failings, even whilst the government maintained its strategic cooperation with Israel.
- Most Egyptians associate the peace treaty with the corrupt old regime, and a Pew survey carried out in April 2011 found that 54% would like to see it repealed. This is not likely to happen, as most prospective Egyptian political leaders understand the importance of military and financial aid from the US, which came about as a result of the treaty.
- Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world, has also allowed hostility towards the US and the West in general to fester, based on anti-Western propaganda within relatively closed societies with poor education systems. For example, another Pew survey found that only 21% of Egyptians believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks on America.
- Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), itself comprised of Mubarak-era figures, is interested in maintaining the status quo. It does not want to see tension with Israel and is keen to maintain public order. However, the SCAF lacks legitimacy and is in a vulnerable position. If they anger the street, they risk bringing hundreds of thousands of Egyptians back into Tahrir Square and making themselves the target of public anger.
- At the same time as the Israeli embassy was ransacked, demonstrators who gathered in front of the Saudi embassy to protest the treatment of Egyptians travelling to Mecca encountered an aggressive response from hundreds of soldiers who surrounded the villa.
What has been the response in Egypt?
- Whilst the incident reflects deep hostility to Israel in Egypt, it was widely condemned by politicians and intellectuals. Grass-roots protest movements, the Muslim Brotherhood and independent candidates for the presidency have distanced themselves from what happened. There appears to be some concern among grass-roots movements that the military could use the incident as an opportunity to clamp down on public protests.
- The government announced in the wake of the events that it would reverse a decision to repeal emergency laws, and that dozens of perpetrators would be arrested. The move was supported by independent presidential candidate Ayman Nour. However the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Freedom and Justice’ party condemned the decision in a statement, saying, ‘The party rejects any bid to use and exploit these incidents to implement martial (law) measures, restrain freedoms or delay.’ It reiterated a call to ‘revise relations’ between Israel and Egypt, without calling for the peace treaty to be scrapped.
- The regime’s condemnation of the incident came from Information Minister Osama Heikal, who called the incident an ‘attack on Egypt’s image’ that cannot go unchallenged. A spokesman for the Egyptian cabinet said that Egypt wished to see the quick return to normal relations between Israel and Egypt. However, Field Marshal Tantawi has been silent.
What has been the response in Israel?
- Israel was already greatly concerned about the status of its relations with Egypt, and this incident has exacerbated its concerns. Cooperation with the authorities in Egypt is an indispensable cornerstone of Israel’s national security, and Israel’s response has been measured to try to bring about a return to normalcy as quickly as possible.
- PM Netanyahu told Israel’s cabinet yesterday that ‘We are in contact with the Egyptian government regarding the necessary procedures for returning our ambassador so that he and his staff will be properly secured, so that they might continue to maintain Israel’s representation in Cairo.’ Speaking at the weekend, he also reiterated his commitment to restoring relations with Turkey and returning to negotiations with the Palestinians.
- Many Israeli commentators are linking the incident to Israel’s diplomatic crisis with Turkey, as a further sign of Israel’s isolation in the region. Some argue that Israel must try to overcome this hostility by doing more to reinvigorate the peace process. Others see Arab anger at Israel as a by-product of their frustration at the lack of internal political progress, fuelled by anti-Israel propaganda.
- It is of particular concern in Israel that PM Netanyahu could not reach Field Marshall Tantawi directly at the height of the crisis, and that it took US intervention to compel Egypt to take action to rescue the Israelis in the embassy.
What has been the response internationally?
- The incident has been widely criticised internationally. Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday strongly condemned the attack on the embassy, calling for full protection of diplomatic rights and property. ‘We have urged the Egyptian authorities to meet their responsibilities under the Vienna Convention to protect diplomatic property and personnel, including the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. They have reassured us that they take these very seriously,’ Cameron said.
- US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr on Saturday. According to a State Department statement, she ‘expressed the United States’ deep concern about the violence on Friday in Cairo, particularly that against the Israeli Embassy, and called on the Egyptian government to fully protect all diplomatic missions and personnel in Egypt, according to its Vienna Convention commitments.’
- The incident was also condemned in parts of the Arab world. Sheik Haled bin Ahmad bin Muhammad al-Halifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, wrote on his Twitter page that ‘the failure to defend the embassy building is a blatant violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.’