CAIRO - The crowds cheered once as the wall protecting the Israeli Embassy in Cairo’s Giza district came tumbling down. They did it a second time hours later when protesters tossed documents from the windows through the air.
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But for most Egyptians, the attack was a needless sideshow to the central drama of the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and is supposed to lead Egypt into a new era of freedom and democracy. Local media were largely critical of the attack and even the Muslim Brotherhood took the protesters to task.
“We have a lot of our own problems right now,” Eman Yussif, a 33-year-old mother of two who lives some five minutes from the embassy, told The Media Line. “My family is struggling to find work, pay bills, get food and we don’t know what the future will bring. To go out and attack the embassy like that just doesn’t feel right.”
Egypt has had a peace agreement with Israel since 1979, but the Jewish state is unpopular among the Egyptian public. Those feelings have grown stronger since the death of six Egyptian policemen by Israeli troops who crossed over the border briefly August 18 in pursuit of terrorists who had attacked and killed seven Israelis.
Yet, seven months after Mubarak stepped down, Egypt remains gripped by chaos in the streets and uncertainty in the government. Economic growth has slowed as tourism and foreign investment drop and the jobless rate pushes up to 12%. Meanwhile, a transitional military government puts off difficult key decisions until elected leaders can take office over the next few months.
Yussif in many ways reflects the feelings of the ordinary Egyptians: While she supports anti-Israel demonstrations, she said, “the focus of protests right now should be on getting Egyptians to live a better life. Israel won’t do this.”
Demonstrators converged at the embassy shortly after last month’s border incident amid heightened bilateral tensions. But troops had kept the protesters at bay, even erecting a wall, until this weekend.
But the demonstrations around the embassy this weekend left a report five people dead and over 1,000 injured in clashes with police. Israel evacuated Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon as well as some 80 diplomatic staff and their families, who boarded a military flight to Israel early Saturday. Another six security guards were later rescued by plain-clothed members of an Egyptian commando force.
Egypt's Information Minister Osama Heikal called the storming of the embassy a criminal act that had nothing to do with the 25 January revolution. "The incident was an insult to Egypt," he said in an interview with satellite channel Al-Arabiya, aired on Sunday night.
Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest Islamic organization, also criticized the demonstrators. Ashraf Hassan, a spokesperson for the organization from Alexandria, told The Media Line on Sunday that he understood the anger directed at Israel, but added: “It should not be the focus of Egypt’s future.”
“What we need is a better future for Egypt based on equality and social justice. Anger and attacking the embassy will not be helpful because there are other issues, like democracy and welfare that need to be looked at,” he said.
“This course of action will hurt internal and external chances to push the revolution forward and it will lead to chaos,” he added.
However, at the same time, he hinted at what has become commonplace in Cairo over the past few weeks since a cross-border raid: Change is coming.
“The Brotherhood does support a new look at the peace treaty with the Zionist state and we insist that Egypt will not a weaker partner in the agreement,” he added, hinting that the movement is looking to renegotiate on a natural gas deal with the Jewish state that would raise the price in line with international standards.
Israel imports large amounts of natural gas from Egypt, but the agreement has come under fire in Egypt since the revolution on charge that Israel gets the gas too cheaply – a symptom of the corruption and crony capitalism in Mubarak Egypt. The pipeline delivering the gas has been attacked five times this year, interrupting the supply.
Some activists hinted that the hostility to Israel is a way of attacking the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the transitional military government, which supports maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel.
While he was tearing down the protective wall in front of the Israeli embassy building over the weekend, one unnamed activist told The Media Line that “the military and Israel are one hand,” playing off the popular Egyptian phrase, “The people and the military are one hand.”
The military remains popular -- a Pew Research poll in April showed that 88% of Egyptians support the military and approve of its leadership – but many Egyptians are disillusioned with the pace of change and blame the military. SCAF has cracked down on bloggers, journalists and activists, limiting the number and kinds of issues about which they can voice their frustration with their own government for fear of arrest and jailing.
Because Israel is so unpopular, it could be the issue used to attack
SCAF, especially as many people perceived it as bending over backwards
to accommodate Israel. The Pew poll found that by a margin of 54% to
36%, Egyptians say their country should annul the treaty with Israel,
even if among wealthier and more educated people only a minority feel
“The military is no different that Mubarak and they are
arresting us and jailing us. They are supporting Israel and not making
Egypt proud,” said Omar, a 27-year-old protester on Friday evening.
“When Israel kills Egyptians that is an attack on all Egypt and we will
not stand by and let this happen. Israel is the problem.”