The tall building at No. 6 Ibn Malek Street on the West Bank of the Nile River
is well known to the people of Cairo. The Israeli flag has flown from its 19th
floor since it was first raised 30 years ago in a moving ceremony. It was hoped
the move would herald a new era of peace with Egypt and with our other
neighbors. It did not quite happen like that.
A cold peace and ongoing
media incitement threw a pall over the building. Though it has provided a haven
for the succeeding teams of Israeli diplomats; though Egyptians and Palestinians
came daily to arrange consular matters or receive visas; though foreign
ambassadors came to exchange views with their Israeli counterpart, there was a
feeling that “something was bound to happen.”
Something did happen on
August 20. The flag was violently taken down by an Egyptian “hero,” thrown to
the ground and set on fire while the mob exulted.
The following day the
“hero” had become the darling of the press and even received an award from the
governor of Giza.
The great country so proud of its magnificent past has
now found its modern hero. Not a philosopher or a scientist, not the founder of
a start-up company making a successful exit via an initial public offering; not
a chess player, not even an athlete. Just a hooligan climbing up the walls to
defile the flag of a neighboring country spurred by the shouts of a hanging mob.
The attack on the embassy itself a few weeks later shows the mob had understood
it had the blessings of the media and of the authorities.
The whole world
saw Egypt could not protect the safety and integrity of a foreign embassy and
could not abide by the most elementary rules of international law and respect
the treaties to which it is a signatory.
The lesson will not be
forgotten, nor will the pictures of the mob attacking the building, getting
access to the embassy, defacing the walls, destroying property. Not something to
inspire confidence or to encourage tourists to visit at a time when Egypt needs
more than ever the understanding and support of the international community for
its failing economy.
Egypt finds itself at a crossroads.
demonstrations and the toppling of Hosni Mubarak have brought no breakthrough
for the country’s social and economic problems.
The Supreme Military
Council ruling the country has been exposed in all its weakness; it has been
unable to show the people a road map leading to the drafting of a new
constitution, the election of new parliamentary institutions and much needed
social and economic reforms.
The situation is going from bad to worse.
There were no liberal parties ready to guide the revolution and work for the
establishment of a democratic regime able to enforce the respect of human rights
and the rights of women, as well as those of the Coptic
Instead, the Muslim Brothers and the ultra-nationalist
movements, long repressed by the previous regime, are controlling the street and
dictating their will to the army – while each fighting to shape the country
The naïve and fearless youngsters who took to the street on
January 25 to demand change and better conditions have lost.
towards Israel is the only common ground for the deeply divided forces battling
for control in Egypt.
Yet today Egypt urgently needs to take care of its
economy, to provide work and hope to its hungry masses. To do so it needs
stability of the kind that the peace treaty with Israel provides. The two
neighboring countries need to cooperate to fight terror groups menacing their
The ongoing dialogue at the higher level has never
stopped, and the US is doing its share to help.
Cool heads are needed on
both sides of the border to defuse the situation. It may not be easy, but there
is no other way.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.