Forward Thinking

The Palace Intrigue Behind the Assault on Israel's Cairo Embassy

By J.J. Goldberg

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The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy in Cairo has an interesting take on the storming of the Israeli embassy last Friday. It’s not exactly optimistic — he thinks that the Egyptian military was slow to restore order at least partly because it wants to be more attentive to public opinion than the Mubarak regime was, and “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.”

The implication here is that the Egyptian people really don’t like Israel, and that the more democratic the country becomes, the more hostile it will be toward Israel. But Murphy doesn’t follow that train of thought. In fact, he says the attackers weren’t really motivated by anti-Israel rage. They weren’t a brigade of Muslim fundamentalists or other anti-Israel radicals. They were overheated soccer fans venting their anger at the police, and the police were letting them vent.

… The breach was spearheaded by a group of protesters that seemed largely drawn from Cairo’s “ultras,” the organized and often thuggish supporters of local soccer teams like Ahli and Zamalek.

He was there, and his read on the crowd is absolutely something to be taken seriously. His take on the role of the security forces is also worth noting:

There were at least 20 armored personnel carriers filled with soldiers on scene and witnesses there said while the crowd was large and unruly that they should have been able to contain the crowd.

Simple incompetence? Possible. Reluctance to use force at a time when Egypt’s military rulers are fighting public perceptions that they’re Egypt’s new oppressors? That would be understandable. The ultras said one of their own was killed by a policemen after a football match last week, and their presence at the Israeli embassy was a way of channeling their fury at Egypt’s security forces. …

But Murphy thinks there was a subtler, more Machiavellian purpose behind the security forces’ permissiveness:

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.”

I should interject here that Lynch thinks such an outcome — a delay of elections, consolidation of power by the military, giving the liberals more time to organize and compete with the Islamists — would be a bad thing. That’s reflected in the headline of his Foreign Policy post: ”Don’t Let the Israeli Embassy Disaster Kill Egyptian Democracy.”

CSM’s Murphy seems to feel the same way. Here’s how he views the Islamists’ role in the current maneuvering:

… 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.

If I were a cynic, I might suggest that the Islamists are just as Machiavellian as the army, and that once they have a foothold in the halls of power they’ll behave rather differently. But who am I to question another country’s democratic processes?


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