The tenuous relationship between Egypt and Israel is going up in flames.
- By Mohamed Fadel FahmyMohamed Fadel Fahmy is the author of Baghdad Bound and works as a freelance news producer/journalist for CNN in Cairo.
CAIRO – Egyptians were rallied to the streets on Sept. 9 for protests that were dubbed as a step toward "correcting the path of the revolution." But anger over a political transformation that has been slow in coming turned into an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo that dramatically altered the course of Egypt’s domestic uprising.
The Israeli Embassy raid in Giza was caused by the convergence of multiple factors: a spike in anti-Israeli anger, which was already running high over the killing of five Egyptian soldiers just across the Gaza border following an Aug. 18 terrorist attack near the Israeli city of Eilat; the outpouring of anger at the Egyptian police that has accompanied the revolution; and even the hooliganism of some local soccer fans. But whatever the cause for the violence, it is clear that Egypt — as well as Israel’s other stalwart ally in the region, Turkey — is looking to distance itself from its former partner, with potentially drastic effects on the entire Middle East.
The mood in Tahrir Square, around two miles from the Israeli Embassy, on Sept. 9 remained festive, until groups of pro-democracy protesters carrying hammers marched toward the embassy. They were intent on breaking down a concrete security wall that had been built a week earlier after previous protests threatened the embassy. Egypt’s military rulers, who had previously moved to shut down popular demonstrations, had issued a statement the previous day that allowed protesters to take to the streets in Tahrir, as long as they didn’t remain overnight.
"We will withdraw all our police and Army officers from the square for 24 hours to give way to a peaceful protest," Lt. Col. Amr Imam, the media spokesman of the armed forces, told me before the protest. "We urge political powers and organizers to control the crowds to avoid any attacks on public property, which we will not tolerate."
Imam would not get his wish, but then again, he didn’t keep his promise either. Outside the embassy, hundreds of charged protesters hammered down and scaled the concrete wall as residents and bystanders cheered. As nighttime closed around 6 p.m., most of the wall was destroyed, and the sky lit up with celebratory fireworks. The protest seemed to have a momentum all its own: "Are we going to war?" Ashraf Nagi, one of many protesters watching the rowdy crowd in shock, asked me.
Violence erupted around 9 p.m. on a back street between the Israeli and Saudi embassies, when dozens of angry protesters attacked an anti-riot police unit stationed there. The police officers were outnumbered, and they fled, running toward the Giza police headquarters several hundred meters away and leaving behind two trucks filled with supplies. By the time the violence was over, 1,049 people had been injured, many from tear gas inhalation, and three were dead, according the Health Ministry.
The angry crowd was a combination of soccer hooligans and pro-democracy protesters who had two common enemies: the police and Israel. Ever since the first day of the uprising on Jan. 25 — Egypt’s Police Day — one of the revolution’s original demands was the end of police brutality. Now, almost eight months later, the police have remained committed to their old ways: On Sept. 6, they stormed the bleachers of a soccer match, attacking a faction of supporters of the popular Al Ahly club, known as the "Ultras." Post-match clashes spilled outside the stadium, leaving 133 people, including 71 security officers, injured.
On Sept. 7, dozens of Ultras showed up outside the trial of deposed President Hosni Mubarak and threatened the police, chanting, "We burned your trucks and took you down on the 25th, you rats; we’ll do it again on September 9th."
The Ultras made good on their promise. Protesters burned the first two trucks they came across, and thick clouds of black smoke billowed in the sky. The demonstrators claimed their victory as they ran out of the trucks, waving two stolen machine guns, tear gas bombs, helmets, and protective gear.
The Giza police headquarters was the next target of the protesters. Outside the building, armed police stood in two rows, urging the protesters to refrain from hurling stones at them. One Army officer who had been attempting to negotiate with the protesters was struck on the head with a stone, which drew blood. Another police commander waved an Egyptian flag, but the growing number of protesters refused his appeal to patriotism as they chanted in defiance, "Our police are pimps; who do we go to? Forget your Mubarak; you only have us to teach you a lesson."
The provocative, organized tone and lyrical structure of the chants sounded a lot like one might hear in an Egyptian soccer stadium. "You don’t want to involve football hooligans into politics, or piss them off," Adel Bassiouni, a civilian onlooker, told me as he shielded his head from the flying rocks.
The headquarters went up in flames and burned for approximately a half-hour before firefighters contained the fire. Police forces fired tear gas, and warning gunshots echoed in the air nonstop in a 13-hour battle.
Back at the Israeli embassy, the situation escalated around 11 p.m. as protesters breached the offices and removed the Israeli flag off the building, replacing it with the Egyptian tricolor. Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon followed the situation nervously from his residence in the suburb of Maadi, imploring Egyptian authorities to contain the situation and arrange for the rescue of the six Israeli security guards trapped in the embassy.
Col. Islam Jaffar, an Egyptian armed forces officer in charge of the military unit in Giza, told me that several protesters had entered the embassy’s 16th floor, which was reserved for non-Israeli staff members. "They could not enter the 17th or 18th floor, which is fortified by electronic bolted doors and guarded by six Israeli security personnel from inside," he added, while attempting to regroup his forces outside the burning police headquarters.
Anti-Israeli sentiment has been running high ever since Egypt’s revolution began. Canceling the export of Egyptian gas to Israel was one of the revolution’s core demands. Following the killing of the five Egyptian soldiers, activists staged a sit-in on Aug. 22 outside the Israeli Embassy, in which they called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the closing of the embassy. They chanted anti-Israeli slogans, such as, "Israel, we won’t sell you gas anymore, but we’ll set the Jews on fire."
The Egyptian authorities’ failure to deal decisively with acts of incitement during that protest no doubt contributed to the Sept. 9 attack. During the Aug. 22 protest, for example, Ahmed el-Shahat, a 23-year-old Egyptian, scaled the embassy and removed the Israeli flag, replacing it with an Egyptian flag. Shahat quickly became a national icon for his actions and even met with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf afterward.
"The prime minister received him like a hero, and the governor rewarded him with an apartment," retired Gen. Sameh Seif al-Yezen told me. "The protesters who stormed the embassy might have thought they would get a mansion for that."
The diplomatic and domestic fallout from the embassy attack was immediate, and drastic. Levanon, along with 70 members of his staff, family, and security personnel, fled Egypt, arriving in Israel on a private jet. Imam, the Egyptian armed forces spokesman, added that the deputy ambassador remained in Egypt "to keep some sort of diplomatic presence."
The Egyptian military has signaled its intention to crack down on those responsible for the Israeli Embassy attack. More than 70 people were arrested for both the attacks on the embassy and the Giza police headquarters, according to Alla Mahmoud, the Interior Ministry’s spokesman. They will face military tribunals.
But these incidents are a worrying sign of just how far Egypt — and the region, writ large — is turning against Israel. On Sept. 2, Turkey expelled its Israeli ambassador over Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killing of nine Turkish activists aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla last year.
The Egyptian people made evident their delight at Turkey’s hard line on Sept. 13, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Cairo to a hero’s welcome. "Erdogan, welcome to your second home! Egypt and Turkey, one hand," chanted thousands of people, many of whom were Muslim Brotherhood members.
Erdogan did not disappoint his admirers. "Our Palestinian brothers should declare an independent state," he announced to an assembly of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, signaling his support for the Palestinian leadership’s upcoming bid for statehood at the United Nations this month, which Israel bitterly opposes.
"Israel must pay for its crimes," he yelled, as the crowds in the assembly applauded.