Israeli-Egyptian relations hit a crisis point Friday night, when thousands of protesters, some armed with Molotov cocktails, stormed the Israeli Embassy compound in Cairo. The mob tore down the concrete wall protecting the building, burned handmade Israeli flags, and protested throughout the night. By early Saturday, the ambassador, embassy staffers, and their families were on an emergency Israeli Air Force flight back to Israel. This is the first time since Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv during the Second Intifada that either country has been without the other’s envoy.
The incident didn’t come out of nowhere. On Aug. 18, eight Israelis were killed on a highway near Eilat by Gazan and Egyptian terrorists who had infiltrated southern Israel by way of the Sinai—Egyptian territory. Israeli forces pursued the terrorists back into Egypt and mistakenly killed five Egyptian soldiers and police officers. The next day, the Egyptian Cabinet called an emergency meeting, where it considered recalling Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv if the Israelis wouldn’t apologize or agree to a joint probe of the officers’ killings. Activists and political parties demanded the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador in Cairo. Several major activist groups, including the left-leaning April 6 Movement, organized a large protest in front of the Israeli Embassy. It culminated with a 23-year-old carpenter scaling the 13-story building to replace the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one.
Israeli and pro-Israel skeptics of the Egyptian revolution have predicted since the Mubarak government fell that Egypt’s pathologically anti-Israel population could push the country toward a violent confrontation with its northern neighbor. These past weeks have made it painfully clear that at least some of the Egyptian people—at best—refuse to tolerate any Israeli presence in their country.
But the real question is how much popular sentiment against the Jewish state actually matters. On a recent reporting trip I took to Cairo, I found that despite the view from the street, the country’s military and its key political factions have no interest in upending the status quo. The cold peace is colder than ever. But even in the wake of Friday’s violence, it’s proving durable.
Ever since Anwar El Sadat signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, the Egyptian government has combated any sense of national inferiority by propagating an amazingly resilient myth: Egypt won the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Camp David Treaty represented Israel’s capitulation to a morally and militarily superior enemy. It’s a myth that helped Egypt recuperate some of its national self-esteem in light of its recognition of the Jewish State and subsequent expulsion from the Arab League. Murals of the Egyptian Army crossing the Suez Canal dot the road between the airport and downtown Cairo, and a downtown bridge and a major suburb of Cairo are named after Oct. 6, 1973, the date of Egypt’s assault on Israeli positions in the Sinai. Whenever I asked Egyptians about their country’s attitude toward the 1973 war, the answer came immediately: It was a major victory.
All of this made Egyptians feel better, but the myth also helped bolster the power of Hosni Mubarak, who took over as president after Sadat’s 1981 assassination. The North Korean-built October War Panorama, a multimedia depiction of Egypt’s attack on the Suez Canal located in the Heliopolis district of Cairo, includes a mosaic that places Mubarak in the center of a group of military commanders planning the war’s opening offensive. Similar imagery is on display at the Cairo Citadel’s National Military Museum.
While Mubarak incited hostility toward the Jewish State at home, he successfully convinced Israel and the United States that he could uphold Western interests in the region. Ezzedine Fishere, a former Foreign Ministry official at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Culture, likened Mubarak’s political strategy to riding two horses simultaneously. “You can ride the two horses so long as you’re going straight,” Fishere explained to me. “This is why stability was so important to Mubarak. When there’s instability, the two horses go in opposite directions. Because the public wants you to live up to your commitments, you’ve been feeding this inflammatory discourse about Israel being the source of all evil. … On the other hand, the Israelis are basically your security partners in the region.”
Future Egyptian leaders can’t afford to play this kind of double game, Fishere argues. “The challenge is for the state to face the public and say, ‘We’ve been having very good relations with Israel for 30 years,’ ” he said. “And at the same time, we’ll have to be frank with the Israelis and the Americans and say ‘We can’t be your accomplice.’ ” The Mubarak regime’s system for dealing with Israel won’t work anymore. The question, then, is whether a more aggressive, and possibly outright hostile, dynamic will take its place.
“The majority of people would agree that we shouldn’t get into to a military conflict with Israel,” Gamal Soltan, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me in his Cairo office in July. “But this doesn’t mean that they will refrain from doing things that would make this more likely.” He believes that a future, representative Egyptian government—parliamentary elections are currently scheduled for October—will have no choice but to respond to the public’s overwhelmingly anti-Israel attitude, which could result in less security cooperation between the two countries.
Soltan added that the new Egyptian government will also have to contend with the long-standing popular sense that the country should reorient its foreign policy. He says that much of the Egyptian street looks to Iran’s open defiance of the West with a certain degree of envy. “We felt inferior vis-a-vis Iran because they did the things we weren’t able to, like supporting the Palestinians, criticizing both Egypt and the United States, and allying with some of the champions of Arab rights, like Hezbollah,” said Soltan. “After the revolution, things might change.”
Like Soltan, Fishere believes that most Egyptians do not want to fight another war with Israel. But he’s more hopeful that democracy will ultimately lead to a less-radicalized discourse on the Jewish State. “We have to make [Egyptian policy toward Israel] more truthful and ultimately more responsible,” Fishere said. “It will be more in the direction of Turkey than in the direction of Iran.” So, Egypt’s strategic posture toward Israel will likely change. That doesn’t mean the peace treaty is going anywhere.
Luckily, the most powerful player in Egypt—the military—already understands this.
And the army, which Egyptian intellectual Tarek Heggy called the “the only power in the country,” enjoys deep popular support. According to last month’s Pew poll of Egyptian political attitudes, 53 percent of Egyptians have a “very good” view of the military, compared to the 29 percent religious leaders enjoy. Field Marshal Mohammad Tantawi, the head of the Military Council, has a 45 percent favorability rating—higher than that of the April 6 Movement (38 percent) and the Muslim Brotherhood (37 percent).
At a major protest in Tahrir Square on July 8, I heard protesters reprising the revolutionary chant that “the army and the people are one hand.” Across Cairo, both Egyptian flags and displays of support for the military (such as fatigue-pattern street art) were ubiquitous. Egyptians still believe that the army is on their side: On Aug. 1, when the military dispersed a three-week tent protest that had shut down Tahrir Square, passersby cheered them on. A Sept. 9 protest against military rule in Tahrir Square was underwhelming. (Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha branch, called it “the most incoherent, ineffective, anti-strategic protest in recent memory.”)
The military has every reason to preserve Egypt’s treaty with Israel. According to an official familiar with the U.S. government’s operations in Egypt, there are currently “tens of thousands” of American military contractors in Egypt, which still receives over $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the United States. Experts I spoke to in Egypt estimated that the military controls between 20 and 40 percent of the country’s economy. War with Israel serves no obvious strategic purpose for Egypt, and it would probably end American financial assistance, threaten the army’s business holdings, and lead to massive casualties. (Nearly 20,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed in the 1967 and 1973 wars.) Plus, the sectarianism that makes Lebanon and Syria so threatening to Israel is absent in Egypt. There are no religious or ethnic militias that could plausibly challenge the military’s monopoly on force.
Tellingly, even the more extreme elements in Egyptian politics have sought accommodation with the military, rather than pressuring it into a more confrontational stance. Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, the former editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s website, told me that he quit the organization partly over its willingness to cooperate with “the Brotherhood’s enemies,” including the ruling military junta.
In the hours after Friday’s embassy incident, Egypt’s ruling military council reiterated its commitment to the 1978 Camp David Accords. Egyptian Information Minister Osama Heikal quickly spoke out against the riot, calling it “a gross violation of the law,” adding that “one cannot call the perpetrators … either brave or patriotic.” And Egypt yesterday reinstated some of the emergency measures lifted after Mubarak’s ouster in February, including laws that limit protesters’ ability to gather in public. A spokesperson for the Egyptian Cabinet told Reuters that “returning to normalcy is the objective for both sides” after the Israeli Embassy conflagration.
No doubt this measure will enrage some elements of the protest movement. But this only shows how badly Egypt’s current military rulers want to stabilize the country’s affairs, including its now-strained relationship with Israel. As soon as the military realized that there was a real possibility of foreign diplomats being seriously hurt or even killed on Egyptian soil, they “realized that the external price they would pay [for inaction] is higher than the internal one for stopping the protest,” Sam Tadros, an Egypt expert at the Hudson Institute told me yesterday. David Schenker of the Washington Instutite for Near East Policy agrees that in the aftermath of Friday’s incident, the military’s top priority is bringing some stability back to the country’s internal and foreign affairs. “What happened with the embassy demonstrates not only that the [ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] is the leading supporter of the peace treaty, but I’d say it’s indicative of the ongoing situation in the country,” he says. “They feel that there has to be a red line. There has to be some semblance of order.”
Egyptian attitudes toward Israel aren’t going to improve. And Egyptian voters, through popular protest and, eventually, through the ballot box, are capable of reversing the kind of close official cooperation that Mubarak pursued. But for the time being, at least, it’s the military that matters. And in the months since the revolution, its calculations toward the Jewish state haven’t changed.