Egypt and the Attack on Israel’s Embassy

Sep 14, 2011

Egypt and the Attack on Israel's Embassy

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 14, 2011
Number 09/11 #04

As readers are probably aware, there was a serious attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo on Friday by an Egyptian mob, which saw the Embassy ransacked, several staff members trapped inside for hours before they were rescued and, eventually, all staff evacuated from the country except for the Deputy Ambassador. (Blogger “Elder of Ziyon” collected some very salient on the spot reporting about what actually happened at the embassy – including how Egyptian authorities refused to stop the crowd’s attack, while protecting the Saudi Embassy on the next block, and how both the mob and soldiers reportedly targeted journalists for violent attack.) Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement on the attack is here.

This Update looks at the wider implications of the attack for both Israeli-Egyptian relations and the outcome of the Egyptian revolution.

First up is noted American foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Mead, who compares what happened at the Embassy to the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, as well as the Iranian seizure of the US embassy in 1979. He argues that this looks like a comparable turning point, where the radicals are forcing everyone to take sides – either risk losing public support by condemning the attack or join the radical camp. He says that this is the “most troubling sign yet that the Egyptian revolution could morph into something much less constructive and stable than many had hoped.” For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Also arguing that the attack demonstrates that hopes for Egyptian democracy seem to be in trouble comes from Israeli analyst Daniel Nisman. A news story which also highlights that the attack on the embassy may have been a way to indirectly attack the military government is here.

Next up is a penetrating piece by Washington Institute Egypt expert Eric Trager making it clear that the Embassy attack was not motivated mainly by anger over “Palestine” as some seemed quick to assume. He reviews the ways in which Egyptians are routinely inculcated with a view of Israel as an enemy for reasons that have nothing to do with Palestine, and are given no reason to believe the peace treaty is of any benefit to Egypt. He interviews some leaders of the protest movement who view the embassy attacks as deliberately allowed by the ruling military government as an excuse for a crack down, but also say it would have been impossible for them to stop Egyptians attacking the Embassy. For this essential look at the Egyptian politics behind the attack, CLICK HERE.

Finally, a dire warning about the perilous state of Israeli-Egyptian relations, written before the latest events at the embassy, comes from Dr. Robert Satloff, Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He notes that today there is virtually no political figure left in Egypt prepared to defend peace with Israel, and argues that loss of the Egypt-Israel peace would be a strategic calamity on a par with Iran gaining nuclear weapons. He calls for intense high-level American engagement to try to salvage matters, but says “salvaging Egypt-Israel peace in the post-Mubarak era” may be an “impossible task.” For Satloff’s knowledgable but chilling analysis in full, CLICK HERE.

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Israeli Embassy: The Egyptian Bastille? 

Walter Russell Mead

The American Interest Blog, September 11, 2011

The attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo yesterday was the most troubling sign yet that the Egyptian revolution could morph into something much less constructive and stable than many had hoped.

The baseline analysis about the Egyptian revolution that many foreign analysts have accepted runs something like this.  The effort by President Mubarak to convert Egypt into a dynastic state angered and alarmed virtually everyone in the country.  The military, which did not welcome the prospect of a hereditary presidency, made the crucial decision not to crush protests.  Mubarak resigned, and the military was left in control of a weakened state.  In the future, the military system will continue with a few reforms; there will be a greater degree of public participation in government, but the military will remain the arbiter of politics, playing Islamists and liberals off against each other.

This would make the Egyptian revolution a distinctly limited affair and would bitterly disappoint both liberals and Islamists, but might well provide a stable framework for the next stage of Egyptian development.  The military’s interests and needs would suggest a basic stability in Egypt’s foreign policy.  The military needs foreign aid; the economy needs tourism and foreign investment.  A limited revolution would seek stability at home and abroad.

To fight the natural tendency of the revolution to stagnate, radicals must find a way to stage events that shift public opinion and the balance of forces in their direction.  During the French revolution events like the storming of the Bastille, the September massacres and the trial of Louis XVI moved the country onto a more radical path.  The radicals took actions that divided moderates and aroused public sympathy even as they moved the revolutionary process to new heights.

The storming of the Israeli embassy may work like that in Egypt.  Most Egyptians have never accepted the idea of diplomatic relations with Israel (even many of those who don’t want more wars also don’t want what they see as the shame and surrender of an Israeli embassy on Egyptian territory).  Attacking the embassy sends a thrill through the masses — who are, by the way, increasingly unhappy with the failure of the revolution to deliver tangible economic benefits.

Attacking an embassy is a revolutionary act; it is a declaration that revolutionaries reject the international status quo and the current authorities who tamely agree to live within its limits.  Like the Iranian seizure of the US embassy in 1979 it is an act that forces people to take sides.  Parties and figures who condemn the attack on the Israeli embassy risk losing public support; those who accept it find themselves committed to an increasingly radical course.

If, on the other hand, public opinion recoils from an act that threatens to cut Egypt off from needed foreign support and to devastate the tourist industry (forget Israeli tourists: few western sun worshippers like to visit countries where embassies are torched), the effort to radicalize the Egyptian revolution will lose steam.

Either way, the embassy attack is more than a dramatic event.  This is history on the march; keep your eyes on Egypt for the next few weeks.

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Cairo’s Embassy Riots: Anti-Israeli Sentiment in Egypt Has Nothing to Do with Palestine

By Eric Trager

New Republic, September 13, 2011

The diplomatic documents had barely stopped drifting down from the Israeli Embassy in Egypt when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof referenced the root causes of the attack, as he saw them: “Attacking the Israeli embassy doesn’t help Gazans, doesn’t bring back the dead,” he tweeted. “Instead it helps Israeli hardliners.” It was the standard response of an armchair analyst, for whom all Middle Eastern current events — and particularly the most outrageous ones — are inextricably linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But to assume that the Egyptian protesters who attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last Friday, tearing down a protective wall and ransacking the premises, were motivated by cosmopolitan, pro-Palestinian concerns is to completely ignore the sad truth that Egyptians overwhelmingly hate Israel for wholly Egyptian reasons: Despite 32 years of peace under the Camp David Accords, Egyptian national pride remains tied to the country’s previous wars with the Jewish state. It’s therefore all too predictable that the groundswell in Egyptian nationalism that ousted Hosni Mubarak this spring has been accompanied by an equally powerful surge in anti-Israeli sentiment.

The valorization of war with Israel is something that millions of Egyptians experience everyday as they drive over the 6th of October Bridge, one of Cairo’s busiest thoroughfares that was named for the date on which Egypt attacked Israel to launch the 1973 war. Meanwhile, approximately 500,000 Egyptians have left the congestion of Cairo for October 6th City to the southwest, which is home to October 6th University, and an additional 140,000 Egyptians now live in 10th of Ramadan City, which is named for the equivalent date on the Islamic calendar and houses the 10th of Ramadan University. Cairene schoolchildren, for their part, visit the October War Panorama, where they are taught that Egyptian forces defeated the “enemy” in the 1973 war, without any mention of the Israeli tanks that were rolling towards Cairo as the war ended. And while the anniversary of the Camp David Accords routinely goes unrecognized, Egyptians commemorate April 25, when Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, and October 6 as national holidays.

Against this backdrop, Friday’s attack on the Israeli Embassy was practically inevitable: The early success of Egypt’s January revolt in forcing Hosni Mubarak’s ouster unleashed an unprecedented wave of Nasserist-infused nationalism, inspiring calls from across the Egyptian political spectrum for the reconsideration of the Camp David Accords. Egyptians bristled, in particular, at the Camp David clauses limiting the number of Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula, and they viewed the amending of these clauses as the next step towards restoring national dignity after toppling their dictator. But Israel’s retaliation for a cross-border terrorist attack on August 18, in which it accidentally killed six Egyptian soldiers while chasing Palestinian terrorists who infiltrated Israel via Sinai and killed eight Israelis, was the spark that ignited Egypt’s tinderbox. In its immediate aftermath, a coalition of liberal, leftist, and Islamist parties protested in front of the Israeli Embassy, demanding that Egypt expel the Israeli ambassador, ban Israeli naval forces from the Suez Canal, and increase Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai Peninsula — actions that would constitute severe violations of the two countries’ peace treaty.

When Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ignored these demands, the protesters viewed it as deeply unpatriotic. “I’m angry at SCAF,” one prominent protester, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of retribution, told me. “Soldiers died, and they didn’t do anything about it.” For those protesting outside of the Israeli Embassy, Egypt’s response to the killing of its soldiers paled in comparison to that of Turkey, which banished Israel’s ambassador as retribution for the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. “What Turkey did for the flotilla showed Egypt that a government can actually do something [regarding Israel],” the protester added.

Egypt’s activists therefore began looking for alternative patriotic standard bearers against Israel. They settled on 23-year-old Ahmed Shahat, who became a national hero when, on August 21, he scaled the outside walls of the apartment building in which the Israeli Embassy is housed and removed the Israeli flag from the thirteenth floor. The Egyptian Twitter verse dubbed him “Flagman” and, perhaps sensing the growing public frustration, the Egyptian government followed suit: Shahat was rewarded for his anti-Israel feat with a government job, a new apartment, and a meeting with the prime minister. “Other people went to the Israeli Embassy trying to do the same thing, thinking that this is a heroic thing to do, because it was awarded by the transitional government,” said liberal Ghad party leader Shadi Taha.

After protesters aided a man who fired shots at the embassy in escaping capture on August 26, however, the Egyptian government reversed course, erecting a concrete barrier around the building. But the new barrier, which loosely resembled the structure that Israel has built in the West Bank, became an instant target for activists, who called on their followers to dismantle it during Friday’s protests. “Rather than dealing with our political demands, the SCAF built a wall,” Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a leader in the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, told me. “So the people can’t accept this anymore, and they took down the wall, and I understand this. But breaking down the embassy, I have hundreds of question marks.”

Like other activists, Harb believes that the Egyptian military permitted the attack on the Israeli Embassy to occur so that it could justify cracking down on the protests. “They knew the pizza was coming, and they left the door wide open,” he said. Indeed, soldiers didn’t immediately intervene to stop the assault on the embassy and, shortly thereafter, the Supreme Council used the attack as a pretext for a variety of autocratic moves, including expanding Egypt’s draconian emergency laws, reviewing satellite television licenses, and raiding the offices of Al-Jazeera Mubasher, which often broadcasts Egyptian protests. Harb fears that, given the domestic anxiety that the embassy attack has catalyzed, the public will rally around the Supreme Council’s new measures. “The people will accept them,” he said. “And, well, they have the right, because they’re not happy with the chaos that they’re suffering from, though this is a deliberate chaos that the SCAF does not want to stop.”

If attacks on the Israeli Embassy are so harmful to your cause, I asked Harb, isn’t there something that you can do to stop or discourage them? “Nothing,” he replied. “How can we stop thugs from attacking the Embassy?” Indeed, the anti-Israel hatred ingrained in Egypt’s nationalist ideology may well be the downfall of Egypt’s revolt.

Eric Trager, The Washington Institute’s Ira Weiner fellow, is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is writing his dissertation on Egyptian opposition parties.


Hanging by a Thread

Two decades of disuse and neglect may have made salvaging Egypt-Israel peace in the post-Mubarak era an impossible task. But the stakes are too high not to try

Robert Satloff

Jerusalem Report,
September 26, 2011

It’s the granddaddy of all American diplomatic achievements in the Middle East. It represents one of the greatest Western victories of the Cold War. It has prevented the drift toward a region-wide Arab-Israeli military confrontation for more than 30 years. It is the foundation both of Israel’s security doctrine and the Jewish state’s transformation from an economic basket case into a firstworld economic power. It has made possible every hopeful move toward Arab-Israeli peace for the past generation. And it – the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – is hanging on by a thread.  If the audacity of the joint Palestinian-Egyptian, Gaza-to-Eilat terrorist attack in mid-August were not scary enough, its potential to explode into a full-blown Egypt-Israel crisis was positively frightening.  In an instant, the real news story – a joint Palestinian-Egyptian team of jihadist terrorists march 200 kilometers across Sinai and then cross the border to launch multiple attacks on civilian targets, only to return to Egyptian territory and escape into the biblical wilderness – was airbrushed from history and the airwaves were instead filled with Arab condemnations of Israeli perfidy for having the temerity of trying to pursue, kill or capture terrorists. Throngs took to the streets denouncing the Camp David agreements and politicians took turns ramping up the popular frenzy by calling for the recall of the Egyptian ambassador, the expulsion of his Israeli counterpart, and even the suspension of the peace treaty itself.

 Cooler heads eventually prevailed.

Lubricated by an almost-apology from Israel’s defense minister and a private visit by a senior Israeli defense official, Egyptian officialdom – in the person of Minister of Defense and de facto head of state, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein al-Tantawi – finally decided to calm the situation. The lameduck Egyptian foreign minister helpfully reminded his countrymen that Egypt’s national interests are well-served by having an ambassador in Tel Aviv and the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, the country’s ruling clique since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, launched an operation to reclaim a measure of control in the largely lawless Sinai. Perhaps reflecting the military’s mood, a proclaimed “million-man march” against Israel drew only a few hundred protesters.

 Still, the damage was done – or to be accurate, the aftermath of the Sinai attack only confirmed how firmly embedded in Egyptian political culture is the phenomenon of antipathy toward Israel.

Today, there is no major political figure left on Egypt’s national scene willing to defend peace with Israel. Among the Islamists, whose poisonous anti-Semitism has been diluted of late as a tactic to earn swooning praise from international media and global democracy activists, this is no surprise. 

 But this is even the case among the alleged liberals. Both Ayman Nour, the Ghad party leader who owes his freedom from Mubarak’s jail to the importuning of American political leaders and activists (many of them Jewish) and Amr Moussa, the populist former Arab League secretary general who earned a reputation among diplomats as a practical-minded wheelerdealer when he served as foreign minister, have declared the Camp David era over. And they may be the best of the lot. 

To be accurate, while Egyptians evince no zest for peace with Israel, they also show no appetite for war. Militias aren’t forming to liberate Palestine; the same Muslim Brotherhood that sent activists to help prevent the  nakba during the Israel War of Independence 63 years ago is far more concerned today with balancing three competing domestic goals – achieving electoral success, preventing being outflanked by the even more radical Salafists, and managing its on-again/off-again partnership with the country’s military leadership.  Egyptians, the saying goes, are committed to the Palestinian cause, just not to the Palestinian people. The result is that many believe they can exist in a nether state of no war, no peace.

 After years of reducing the relationship with Israel to its most minimalist components, it is not difficult to see how many Egyptians could reach that conclusion. On the eve of the Tahrir Square uprising, the entire relationship between these two neighbors had been whittled down to the sale of gas, the operation of several low-profile economic zones, measured security cooperation in constraining the activities of radical jihadists (especially those targeting Egypt) and an uneasy political ménage à trois with the United States. 
Israeli leaders visiting Cairo made a beeline to the presidential palace for tea with Mubarak, a conversation with his intelligence chief and perhaps his minister of defense, and flew home, satisfied that they had checked the Egyptian box. For years, this was sufficient – until it wasn’t anymore. In the absence of public political investment – which Egypt’s leaders never wanted to make and Israel’s leaders never considered essential – none of these factors are strong enough, individually or collectively, to sustain a long-term relationship. Indeed, little of this is even likely to survive Egypt’s revolutionary fervor.
Still, there is a huge difference between an Egypt at peace with Israel, locked into a series of contractual obligations, sustaining at least the skeleton of a security and intelligence relationship, and desirous of Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic progress, if only to validate its original go-it-alone move, and an Egypt untethered by any formal relationship with Israel, swaying this way and that with the gyrations of the public mood, sliding (perhaps backsliding) inexorably from peace to non-belligerency, to even worse.  Forget the Palestinian gambit at the United Nations. Don’t lose sleep about Grad missiles from Hamas. Fear not the threats of Syria’s Assad, Hizballah’s Nasrallah or alQaeda’s Zawahiri. Compared to the potential demise of Egypt-Israel peace, a huge bonanza to radicals of every stripe and a strategic calamity nearly on par with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Iranian mullahs, these are mere annoyances.

Ultimately, preserving Egypt-Israel peace, at least to prevent a slow (and perhaps not so slow) descent into belligerency, will be a team effort. Everyone with an interest in its preservation has a role to play. For the Egyptian military, that means prosecuting “Operation Eagle” – the effort to recapture control of the Sinai – to the fullest, sending the entire complement of 2,000 allowed troops into the peninsula (not just 750) and rejecting the idea of an uneasy truce with the Islamist-Bedouin alliance that owns much of that empty space. On the political level, this will also see the military playing the pre-Erdogan role of the Turkish army in terms of preventing Egypt’s rambunctious, revolutionary political discourse from straying into areas where it risks national security.

For Israel, this will require the unnatural act of diplomatic subtlety, creativity and restraint. For example, whereas Israel has legitimate grounds not to apologize to Ankara over its outrageous role in the “Mavi Marmara” incident, the Egyptian government’s actions in the Sinai attack were nothing like that of Turkey’s at sea; a more generous statement on the unfortunate killing of Egyptian security forces might have been both appropriate and helpful.
Other Arab states should act, too. Saudi Arabia may be no lover of Zion but the Saudis have no interest in a hostile Egyptian-Israeli relationship diverting attention from the Iranian quest for regional influence. Here, Riyadh can help by stopping the flow of money to Salafis and other radicals that has the impact of distorting politics and accentuating the extremist narrative. Ultimately, this effort will not succeed without Washington. History will not be kind to President Barack Obama if he decides he can trade a minor success in Libya for a strategic catastrophe in Egypt. America’s influence in the Middle East depends on its relationships with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With Israel and Saudi Arabia, the relationship is bound up in other equities (with the former, historic, popular, cultural and strategic bonds; with the latter, oil). 

With Egypt, the link is Camp David. If that connection suffers, America’s standing in the region suffers, too. This will require high-level U.S. engagement, both before and after Egypt’s election season, to remind Egyptians what is at stake in their choice of political leaders and to remind those leaders that their choices have consequences. In the end, two decades of disuse and neglect may have made salvaging Egypt-Israel peace in the post-Mubarak era an impossible task. But the stakes are too high not to try.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.

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