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Israel and Egypt: The view from Cairo

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

By Staff writer / September 12, 2011

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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.

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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.

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.

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