Rod asked for my reaction to the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo over the weekend. First, let me belatedly welcome Rod to TAC. We have been blogging colleagues of a sort for many years, and I am very pleased to have him writing on politics and culture for the magazine. In the past, we have usually been at odds in debates concerning Israel, but in this case I think we are mostly in agreement in objecting to the attack.
Whatever else one wants to say about the current Israeli government, diplomatic missions and personnel are protected by international convention, and it is essential to the functioning of diplomatic channels that host governments guarantee the security of the diplomats stationed in their country. If host governments cannot or will not provide effective security, they are ignoring one of the most basic things that makes diplomacy and normal inter-state relations possible in the first place. Governments that ignore these responsibilities for the sake of some short-term political advantage deserve to be condemned.
Interestingly, the SCAF’s handling of this has been severely criticized at home, and most Egyptian political parties have made a point of denouncing the embassy attack. If the SCAF hoped to score points by letting the attack continue, it may have miscalculated. Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the military government is facing pressure at home because of its minimal response to the deaths of five of its soldiers in the Sinai last month, which was apparently one of the things that spurred the crowd to attack the embassy. As the AP reported on the destruction of the security wall in front of the embassy:
Many protesters saw the wall as a symbol of the government’s willingness to protect Israelis but not Egyptians, since it was put up to keep back protests after Israeli forces chasing militants accidentally killed five Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula.
From what I have seen, it seems that the military government in Egypt permitted the attack to go on for as long it did to send several messages. One is that the military government is willing to indulge popular hostility towards Israel, perhaps as a way of deflecting attention from its efforts to consolidate power, and it didn’t seem to care that this will undermine bilateral relations. Another message is that the SCAF will be even more independent of, or indifferent to, the U.S. than many supposed. The detail that stood out for me from the Telegraph report Rod cited was this:
Officials in Israel, as well as a number of political activists in Cairo, have claimed that Field Marshal Tantawi turned down an opportunity to rein in the violence at the embassy in order to prove that, without a strong army, Egypt would descend into violence and anarchy.
This seems plausible, and it is consistent with the SCAF’s interest in portraying itself as the only thing standing in the way of mob rule and chaos. This incident confirms that the military government has no problem exploiting and using mob violence to whatever it thinks is its advantage. If a foreign government complains that the SCAF is bringing back emergency laws, the military government will say that it is necessary to keep crowds from going on a rampage. Egypt has a coup government, and it also suffers from destructive outbursts of popular enthusiasm, which the government can then use to strengthen its hold on power.