Israel and Egypt: The view from Cairo

The Israel-Egypt relationship can't be the same again.

By , Staff writer

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A coordinated and reasonably sophisticated terror attack emanating from the Sinai peninsula kills 34 people, 12 of them Israeli tourists. The bombings send shudders through the Israeli-Egyptian relationship and spread fears that the Sinai, home to Bedouins and smugglers and, it seems, a growing armed Islamist movement, is careening out of control.

Sound familiar? No, this wasn't the infiltration into Israel from the Sinai in mid-August, when seven Israelis were killed by a group of gunmen. Rather, it was a 2004 attack in which the Taba Hilton and two nearby tourist camps were bombed.

The difference in Egypt's response then and now to attacks in the Sinai, together with this weekend's attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, signals a fundamental change in the relationship between Israel and the Arab world's most populous country.

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In the past, the Egyptian government didn't have to worry about public opinion more than a little bit when it came to its dealings with Israel. Today, it does.

After the 2004 attacks in the Sinai, former President Hosni Mubarak's government arrested thousands in the desert peninsula, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with the violence. Some were detained as leverage against wanted relatives still at large, others simply because they were thought to be sympathetic to Islamist movements. Dozens of them, at least, were tortured.

This time, Egypt's interim military rulers – the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi – have been more restrained in their approach, taking into account public sentiment on both Israel and on the history of abuses perpetrated by the military and the police against their own citizens.

On the day of the Sinai attack, five Egyptian border guards were killed by Israeli soldiers (I had originally written three border guards killed, but five is the generally accepted number here. I'm still not entirely sure if all of the dead guards were killed by Israeli fire) . That created predictable public outrage in Egypt, particularly among the activists who led the charge to oust Mr. Mubarak and have since tried to keep pressure on SCAF. Many felt that Egypt's ambassador to Israel should be recalled and Israel's ambassador sent home for a time in response to the killing of the Egyptian servicemen.

But Field Marshal Tantawi and his fellow generals rejected those calls, insisting that the peace with Israel remains vital to Egypt's own national interests. That perspective certainly has some merit – the peace, made at Camp David in 1979, led to the return of the Sinai three years later and has been a financial gold mine for the military, which continues to receive extensive aid from the US as a reward. And many Egyptians, while they dislike Israel, remember generations of ruinous confrontation with the Jewish state before the Camp David accords were signed.

How then to understand this weekend's strange and alarming occupation of the Israeli embassy, which began Friday afternoon in a high-rise apartment building along the Nile? The breach was spearheaded by a group of protesters that seemed largely drawn from Cairo's "ultras," the organized and often thuggish supporters of local soccer teams like Ahli and Zamalek.

There were at least 20 armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers on scene and witnesses there said while the crowd was large and unruly that they should have been able to contain the crowd.

Simple incompetence? Possible. Reluctance to use force at a time when Egypt's military rulers are fighting public perceptions that they're Egypt's new oppressors? That would be understandable. The ultras said one of their own was killed by a policemen after a football match last week, and their presence at the Israeli embassy was a way of channeling their fury at Egypt's security forces.

A conspiracy? Many in activist circles here both defend public anger at Israel and suggest that the military deliberately allowed the incident to happen, to justify harsher crackdowns going forward and perhaps to convince a greater proportion of the public that Egypt's activists are dangerous forces for instability. Tantawi didn't take increasingly frantic US phone calls demanding that the embassy staff be protected until 1 a.m. on Saturday, and the Israeli ambassador and nearly his entire staff were evacuated.

In a prescient post on Saturday, Marc Lynch wrote at Foreign Policy that "the incident could easily become an excuse for the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to postpone elections, expand rather than surrender its Emergency Law powers, and avoid the transfer of power to a legitimate civilian government. What's more, these moves might now win applause rather than condemnation among key constituencies: revolutionaries who were already skeptical of elections, liberals worried that Islamists will win, and Americans and others abroad worried about the implications of Egyptian democracy for Israel."

Chatting with folks in Cairo today and yesterday, I heard more condemnation of events at the Israeli embassy than support, as a lurch toward chaos, as bad for Egypt's image, and as smacking of dangerous foreign entanglements at a time when Egypt needs to focus on political change at home and its own battered economy.

Yesterday, Egypt's military junta said it was "strengthening" the country's hated emergency law. Striking the law, which has persisted since former President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination, was a core demand of the revolutionaries on Tahrir Square and its strengthening is a reminder of how much of the old status quo endures. Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawy told state television that the emergency law would be used against "thuggery, aggression against the freedom to work..., blocking roads and deliberately publishing false news, statements or rumors."

How "deliberately publishing false news" will be determined isn't clear, and there's been a growing environment of censorship in recent months. Over the weekend, security officials raided the office of Al Jazeera Live here, in what most in the press corps took to be an act of intimidation. Egypt's labor movement has been increasingly organized, and amid talks of potential national strikes, one wonders if the emergency laws will be used against labor activists.

The timing of the new tougher line and the embassy attack were certainly interesting.

To be sure, Egypt's military has long worried about how its work with Israel plays out in the public sphere. A 2007 US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks put it this way: "The Egyptians claim that they respond aggressively to Israeli intelligence leads, while both sides bicker over whether and how Egypt could deploy more Border Guard Forces. Meanwhile, the Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to "squeeze" Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel's "siege" of Gaza," then US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone wrote.

Interestingly, Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (which spawned Hamas) were nowhere to be found at the Israeli embassy on Friday and early Saturday. They've gone on record as saying that while they'd like elements of the Camp David accords to be redrawn, they don't want the deal scrapped, and have for now made an uneasy peace with the military, pushing for elections soon in which they're betting superior grass roots organization will deliver them their largest share of power in history.

But with a growing number of Egyptians finding their voice in the public sphere, business as usual with Israel seems highly unlikely, at least in the medium term.

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