Cairo embassy violence 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In many ways Egypt-present isn’t like Egypt-past. In many ways nothing in Egypt
has changed at all.
Herein prevails the paradox. Egypt is a bedeviling
composite of the mutating and the immutable.I described its immutability
years ago, when recalling my first work assignment to Egypt. In those days peace
with Israel hadn’t yet been thoroughly delegitimized among the broad lower
strata of Egyptian society (as distinct from the razor-thin so-called
Yet it was a frustrating (pre-Internet) time. The
Jerusalem Post’s then-editors wouldn’t hear of footing the bill for
long-distance telephone communications.
Reporters from other Israeli
papers weren’t likewise impeded. I had to travel by cab alone each night – over
an hour each way – from our well-secured hotel to Cairo’s Reuters headquarters
to file my copy by telex.
However, it soon transpired that the phones
rarely worked. My alternative prearrangements made me a sudden star among my
colleagues, who in no time appointed me their pool-writer. The upside was that I
had company on those long, forbidding after-dark taxi adventures.
rude culture shock awaited us at the end of the ride. Reuters’ Egyptian
teletype-operators were a nonchalant bunch. There was no hostility, just no
rush. We explained that we were up against deadlines, to which the inevitable
reply was a shrug and the word “ma’alesh.” We soon learned that it denoted
something approximating “Who cares? What’s the big deal? So what? Don’t take it
After I detailed what must be done and by when, the man
in charge, chewing on some late-night nourishment, nodded and uttered
“inshallah” – God willing.
His task was straightforward enough to be
attempted without divine intervention.
I stressed the urgency of our
business, but nothing seemed to inspire action. In near-desperation, I asked the
telex chief when the text would at last be processed.
answered. That meant “tomorrow.”
Why rehash bygone exasperations? Because
they’re the Egyptian equation’s constant. The languor of Egyptian employees at a
busy Western news agency isn’t much different from the languor of Egyptian
uniformed personnel charged with safeguarding the Israeli border or the Israeli
embassy – and that’s assuming unadulterated goodwill.
And this is where
the inconstant and changeable in Egypt’s equation come into play. Palpable
scarcity of goodwill shoved Israel into the eye of Egypt’s storm.
Israel a central controversy seemed patently counterproductive in the uprising’s
early phases. Hate as the protest’s pivot was bad PR. To be sure, the ill-will
was there from the get-go, i.e. the sexual molestation of an American newswoman
accused – falsely as it happens – of the unforgivable crime of being
But international opinion managed to adroitly sashay past that
unpleasantness. The syrupy story about masses yearning to be free was too sweet
to pass up even if it wasn’t quite true.
Now, in the course of apparently
democratic campaigning, presidential candidates vie for the distinction of most
Israel-bashing is the ace in the hole of ousted president
Hosni Mubarak’s one-time foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Amr
Moussa. Singer Shaaban Abdel-Rahim celebrated him in a pop-hit: “I hate Israel
and love Amr Moussa.”
Another presidential candidate considered a
moderate overseas, Mohamed ElBaradei – who gained fame as the do-nothing chief
of the International Atomic Energy Agency under whose unwatchful eye Iran
furthered its nuclear ambitions – has altogether expressed readiness “to declare
war against the Zionist regime.”
The assault on the Israeli embassy in
Cairo, therefore, hardly grated against the grain of Egypt’s mainstream public
discourse. True, only a minuscule minority of Egypt’s population partook in the
actual frenzy, but small matches can ignite giant tinderboxes – if
The plain fact is that Cairo’s caretaker junta fears imposing
discipline and its hotshots might not hotly disagree with the rabble’s
inflammatory screams of “Khaybar” (one of the Jewish enclaves which Islam’s
progenitor Muhammad attacked in violation of treaty pledges. Jewish men were
beheaded, women abducted and children enslaved).
These taunting “Khaybar”
yells left no doubt about what motivated the mob, though foreign correspondents
outdid themselves in seeking excuses for the fury – like the August shooting of
five Egyptian troopers.
They omitted mention of the violent context of a
terrorist infiltration from Egypt in which innocent Israelis were murdered. It
was as if villainous Israelis had capriciously gunned down Egyptian
In the end it took American intercession to prevent the
slaughter of Israeli embassy guards. The very fact that President Barack Obama
had to lean on the current Cairo powers-that-be is no feather in his cap. Had
Egypt’s de-facto rulers a smidgen of residual respect for US deterrence, they
would rein in the anarchy slightly more.
But Cairo’s military honchos had
only recently witnessed Obama abandon and betray Mubarak, his supposed No. 1
ally. Whatever they thought of Mubarak before his fall, they learned that Obama
cannot be relied upon.
Among his other glaring failures in this critical
region, Obama emboldened Palestinians to ditch any semblance of talks with
Israel. He failed to scare Iran into desisting from nuke-manufacture and he
managed to do nothing when Turkey threatened naval action against
All of the above contribute to making our neighborhood more
unpredictable and downright dangerous than ever before – not that it ever was a
paradigm of prudence. In the best of circumstances Egypt was never as good as
its word, its sincerity or lack thereof notwithstanding.Der
-style Jew-slandering was rampant under Mubarak. Northern Sinai Beduin
were loath to toe Mubarak’s line. Lawlessness and smuggling were their
livelihood and their insubordination continued unchecked. Mubarak’s attempts to
control them were met by violent resistance. Whichever international agreements
bound Cairo made no impression on the tribal gangs that called the shots in
Sinai. They remain unimpressed.
Similarly unimpressed was Egyptian
bureaucracy. Its super-snarled red tape effectively obstructed all governmental
executive decisions. Even topmost policy edicts were unrecognizably ground down
as they were subjected to arbitrary whims imposed along the way by inflated
cadres of sluggish officials. Mubarak could issue orders, but Egypt being Egypt,
his commands were unlikely to be dependably implemented. In this respect nothing
The bottom of the bureaucratic pyramid was and remains the
most troubling of all – the nature of the men assigned by Cairo to patrol our
They’re woefully underpaid and hence eminently
For a handful of dollars, Egyptian officers will turn a blind
eye to Hamas contraband and terror. Bakshish, after all, greases all Egyptian
Not unexpectedly it was only bakshish that at the time
resuscitated those prearranged Reuters telex services. In the end, after
recurring maddeningd rounds of ma’alesh
, we finally resorted
The clock was ticking. Deadline was literally minutes away.
We all coughed up some foreign exchange, greased the boss’s palm and in return
he allowed me to sit at his teletypewriter and punch its keys
What’s the lesson for the Israeli collective? Maybe that Egypt is
the “staff of hollow reed,” as per Isaiah 36:6.www.sarahhonig.com
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