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September 10, 2011: Crisis in Egypt

September 11, 2011

Motzei Shabbat (After Shabbat)

Having spent the last couple of posting focused on campus anti-Semitism, I anticipated the need for some news catch-up.  But what has happened is that news has caught up with me.  I write now not to review, but to share a very current event — one that transpired over Shabbat and which I have just learned about.

After sundown on Friday night, some hundreds of Egyptians — referred to as “rioters” or “protestors” depending on the source — overran the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

This was not all together a surprise.  If you remember, the Israeli flag was torn down from the Embassy recently by an Egyptian, who was then made a popular hero as a result.  About three weeks ago, Egyptian security forces arranged for the construction of a concrete security wall of some substance around the building where the Israeli Embassy is housed, precisely because of concern that rioters might cause trouble.

Well, they have:






After the wall was broken down, some dozens of rioters entered the building, moved to the third floor and began ransacking offices.  During this period, Egyptian police did nothing to intervene, but ultimately cleared out the rioters.

In the early morning hours two Israeli planes were sent into Cairo, and came back with Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon and some 80 people, including Embassy diplomatic staff and their families. I have no information on how they were brought out of the building.  Netanyahu, addressing the nation tonight, said,  “We only had one mission in mind – to ensure the safety of the Israeli envoys in Egypt.”

Netanyahu had called President Obama at about 2 AM and asked for his assistance.  The president’s reply: “I will do whatever I can.”  “I think we owe him a special thanks,” Netanyahu said tonight.  Obama applied leverage which, it is believed, helped to move Egyptian security forces to finally act.   

After the Embassy staff had been rescued — and it’s unclear as to whether Obama’s pressure had come early enough to facilitate this — six Israeli security officers were left stranded inside the building.  With one metal door between them and the rioters, they were frightened for their lives.  And it is here that the American intervention apparently did make a difference: Egyptian commandos, apparently acting after the rioters had been driven from the building, dressed the Israelis as Arabs and slipped them out. They have returned to Israel now as well.  Foreign Minister Lieberman praised them for behaving professionally and with cool heads.


A bit of background here: The crowds that rioted at the Embassy had not come out solely for this purpose.  Thousands were demonstrating in Tahrir Square in Cairo against the military regime because they was not instituting reforms quickly enough.  Part of what was protested was the continuation of the peace treaty with Israel, and the readiness to continue to export natural gas to Israel.

There was also anger about the fact that Israel had killed Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, during the operation outside Eilat when terrorists had attacked.  There is no public clarification that I am aware of with regard to this situation: the terrorists had worn Egyptian uniforms, and it seems to me not all together certain as to who in Egyptian uniform had done what, nor certain as to what the line of fire was when these forces were shot.  The Israeli forces were aiming from the Israeli into the Sinai, returning fire that had presumably originated with the terrorists.  But, at any rate, the crowd was angry.


Given this background, it is difficult to determine to what degree the Egyptian authorities had failed to intervene last night because they were quite content to allow the crowd to go after the Israeli Embassy, and to what degree because they were feeling somewhat beleaguered already.  Probably some combination of the two.  It does seem that the military regime is skating on thin ice. 

According to a report from YNet, both Netanyahu and Barak had tried to reach Mohammed Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Military Council, during the night, but were told repeatedly that “he could not be located.”  He was avoiding a political hot potato.

During his TV statement tonight, Netanyahu said that Israel was working with the Egyptian government for the return of the Israeli diplomatic staff to Cairo.  Israel would stand by the peace treaty with Egypt.  (Right now, as I understand it, one Israeli diplomat remains in Cairo to retain the Israeli presence there — who this is and where he is, I do not know.)

Egypt’s ruling powers, whatever their ambivalence about Israel, and the insecurity of their position, are giving no overt sign of wanting to break that treaty.  It is absolutely in their best interest to retain it: the last thing they need at present is a reduction in financial support from the US (which is predicated on that treaty) or war with Israel.

Egyptian officials say that some of the rioters and those who instigated the riots have been apprehended and will be tried in state court under emergency provisions.  And some apology or regret for what transpired has been expressed.

Egypt has taken criticism for the attack on the Israeli Embassy from many quarters — because this is something that is not supposed to happen.  Even Bahrain’s foreign minister has said that, “the failure to defend the embassy building is a blatant violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”


That “catch-up” as well as follow-up on this will follow soon.


© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.





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