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Israel and Egypt: The view from Cairo

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

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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.

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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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