On the Israeli embassy incident

I don't have much time but can't resist a quick comment on the attack on the Israeli embassy last night, which is already the subject of much Twitter debate.

First, what happened: yesterday there were multiple protests in Cairo, starting with one of several tens of thousands who called for an end to military tribunals, greater judicial independence, a better electoral law and other measures. The protest also was against Israel, for the recent killing of six Egyptian border guards. Some of these protestors went to the Israeli embassy, and this ended with a confrontation with police and military and, for the first time in the history of protests against the Israeli embassy, a break-in in what was probably the non-secure portion of its offices.

A few points: 

  • The construction of a wall outside the embassy was almost a provocation to people to come and bring it down. The symbolism of a wall was not lost on any one and merely angered people.
  • The Turkish decision to downscale relations with Israel also caused a surge in national sentiment.
  • The SCAF's handling of the border shootings leaves much to be desired, notably because of inconsistent statements.
  • Israel's failure to make a clear, unambiguous apology for the shootings was really stupid but typically arrogant — another sign that Israel is slow to adapt to the new regional mood. But Egyptian anger is understandable: imagine if Mexico killed US border guards.
  • The attack on the embassy took place in a general atmosphere of distrust of the SCAF in its handling of both domestic and foreign affairs, mounting anxiety about Egypt's transition, and incompetent and unclear leadership. I sincerely doubt it would have taken place if Nabil al-Arabi was still foreign minister.
  • There are important details about the attack: it took place a few days after clashes between football fans and the police, leading to many of these Ultras both angry at the authorities and afraid that they might be arrested. The Ultras' role in penetrating the embassy was probably crucial, because they are determined and fearless (and it's important to note that in previous protests there was more restraint; it probably would have ended up with just the wall being torn down, which would have been quite satisfying in itself.)
  • The SCAF's failure to prevent the intrusion into the embassy proper is flabbergasting.

I don't think I need to restate my dislike of Israel and my belief that it is largely responsible for the hostility against it in Egypt and the region, nor the looming end of the Camp David framework to Egyptian-Israeli relations. That should be clear to anyone who has read this blog. But it remains the case that the attack of an embassy is a grave violations of diplomatic norms, an worrying for other embassies in Cairo (remember the Danish cartoons crisis anyone?)

The act of entering the embassy was not just illegal (in terms of domestic and international law), it was mindless and showed a poor sense of strategy and priority. It will hurt the credibility of the protest movement at home and abroad, reinforce fears of a country getting out of control domestically, and distract from the more important issue of Egypt's still uncertain democratic transition. And it will not achieve, beyond the fleeing of most Israeli officials in Egypt for now, much to change the nature of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Even with only one senior embassy official remaining, the strategic relations are now taking place chiefly military to military through liaison offices that operate far away from where the embassy is located. This action does nothing to change Egyptian policy, and certainly nothing to help Palestinians, like fully ending the blockade of Gaza would. 

But what's worse about the incident is that it shows how the revolution's positive energy — the desire for better governance, greater democracy and a more dignified foreign policy — is being dissipated.