Revolution Online, September 15, 2011

Cairo: Battering down another brick in the wall

Revolution newspaper received the following from A World to Win News Service:

September 12, 2011. A World to Win News Service. Thousands of youth assaulted the Israeli embassy in Cairo on September 9. To the rhythm of drumbeats and enthusiastic chants, they used a lamp post to batter a hole in the wall of concrete and metal around the building. Several dozen succeeded in entering the compound, where they tore down the Israeli flag and replaced it with the Egyptian and Palestinian banners, and began tossing Hebrew diplomatic documents to the crowd below.

The regime had put up the protective structure following another anti-Israel protest a few weeks ago, when Israeli soldiers killed six Egyptian border guards. This time the youth did what the Egyptian government had failed to do the last time despite its promises – effectively expelling the Israeli ambassador, who fled along with more than 80 other diplomatic personnel evacuated by Israeli military jets screaming away across the Cairo sky.

Earlier that afternoon, tens of thousands of demonstrators had gathered in Tahrir Square following Friday prayers in the first such major action in a month, for what was billed as a protest to "Correct the path of the revolution." The organizers represented a broad coalition of groups that call themselves secular and revolutionary. The gathering was opposed by most of the main political parties, who have been arguing that the goal now should be to reach national consensus rather than engage in disruptive protests. Following this turn by many forces over the past months, the continuing Tahrir Square occupation dwindled and was forcibly dispersed by the security forces at the beginning of August. The weekly Tahrir Square demonstrations were put on hold during Ramadan. The military and their friends seemed to have seized the initiative away from the angry youth who had set the terms during the January revolt that toppled Mubarak.

But this apparent stability was challenged in mid-August when Israeli soldiers shot the Egyptian border guards in circumstances that neither government has seen fit to fully clarify. There had been a raid on the Israeli Red Sea town of Eilat that killed six Israeli civilians and two soldiers. Israel responded by bombing Gaza, far away on the Mediterranean side of the peninsula, and by the killings on the Egyptian side of the border. Perhaps they mistook the guards for the attackers, a claim that Israeli authorities at first asserted and then dropped. Perhaps it was a demonstration of strength, or a warning to the Egyptian government that it would have to pay for any failure to protect Israeli security. Tel Aviv's unexpected refusal to apologize seems to have been a violent reminder to the Egyptian military that  it had better not forget why the US so lavishly funded and nurtured it for three decades – to implement American interests, including protecting Israel.

This created a very difficult situation for the Supreme Armed Forces Council to which Mubarak turned over power when he resigned February 11. The question of standing up to Israel has often played a critical role in Egyptian politics.

The nationalist upsurge that began in the late 1940s held the British puppet King Farouk responsible when Israeli armed forces easily crushed the Egyptian military in the 1948 war. The Free Officers Movement that overthrew the king and brought Gamal Nasser to power in 1952 was rooted in that moment. Certainly the prestige gained when Egypt (with US support behind the scenes) beat back the combined attack by Israel, the UK and France in 1956 following Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal was a hugely important factor in allowing the Egyptian military to claim that it represented the whole nation. In turn, Egypt's ignominious defeat in the 1967 war marked the decline in Nasser's ability to mobilize the Egyptian people.

Egypt's relative success in regaining its soil occupied by Israel in the 1973 war gave Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat the nationalist reputation he used to enter into negotiations with Israel and eventually sign a peace treaty – and this war also demonstrated that the US was fully reasserting its dominance when Washington warned that it would not hesitate to use its full strength, even nuclear weapons, to prevent Israel's definitive defeat. Sadat, who had unleashed Islamic fundamentalist forces against the communists and others, was himself killed by Islamics for capitulating to Israel.

While his successor as head of the military regime, Hosni Mubarak, went even further in working with Israel against the Palestinian people (for instance, in helping Israel blockade Gaza), he, too, portrayed himself as a military hero in the wars against Israel – which is the main argument against punishing him used by his supporters today. In fact, military rule and the central role of the Egyptian army in economic and political life, and these generals' autocratic rule and violent repression, were all justified as necessary to withstand Israel. Mubarak's claim that the peace treaty was necessary so that Egyptians could take care of their own interests found some echo, but now, especially, many Egyptians see a link between his subservience to the US and its Israeli outpost and all the ways the Egyptian people suffered under his rule.

The new military regime headed by Mubarak's Field Marshall (army chief) Hussein Tantawi (also portrayed as a hero in the wars against Israel) is acutely aware that critical sections of the people would rather die than accept an Egypt as it had become under Mubarak. How they have handled the killing of the border guards is a good example of how they've hoped to deal with the contradiction between a critical sector of the people's aspirations for change and the fact that the junta mainly represents the continuity of the old regime and above all of the ruling classes.

At first regime spokesmen announced that it would expel the Israeli ambassador if the Zionists did not apologize, but then fell silent when Israel called their bluff. Probably this was because Israel saw any concession to Egyptian national pride as dangerous, not because it fears the Egyptian regime but because it is afraid that such concessions, even if desperately needed for the regime's legitimacy, might embolden ordinary Egyptians to push the military harder.

When, during the 18 August Cairo demonstration against Israel, a young man managed to get into the diplomatic compound, tear down the Israeli flag and replace it with Egyptian and Palestinian ones, "Flagman", as millions called him with admiration, became a national hero. The regime tried to co-opt his act by awarding him an apartment and a job, but at the same time it built the protective wall around the embassy and warned that further disorder would not be allowed.

One of the main demands of the September 9 demonstration was that the military drop the three-decades-old emergency rule that has allowed it to ban demonstrations and arrest people without charges or bring them before military tribunals. Since the fall of Mubarak, the new regime has been arresting and imprisoning people on a scale unseen during the Mubarak years – nearly 12,000 prosecutions since February. Further, although the extent is not clear, there were definitely slogans denouncing Tantawi as an American puppet because his regime had been forced to accept Israeli humiliation . The slogan "The people want a new revolution" was also reportedly heard.

Yet it seems that the military was not anxious to tangle with the protesters when they were so numerous, a pattern that has been seen repeatedly over the last few months. After the Tahrir Square rally a part of the crowd headed for the Giza district a few kilometres away. Supporters of a football team whose members have been victimized by the police played a vocal role. Among the groups on the breakaway march were the highly visible "pro-democracy" April 6 Youth Movement, according to a spokesperson. Other organizations that later denounced the attack on the embassy included the pan-Arabist Karama Party and the Freedom and Justice Party formed for electoral purposes by the Muslim Brotherhood. A well-known Salafist preacher said it was right to take down the wall but wrong to attack the embassy.

A number of Western commentators, especially in the Israeli media, unashamedly nostalgic for the most hated man in Egypt, complained that the regime seemed to be avoiding a confrontation that night. Mubarak, they said, would not have hesitated to have his tanks open fire right away. There may be some truth to that, but why? Not because today's generals are any more concerned with the people's welfare or more nationalist. Killing demonstrators to protect Israeli interests is exactly what the regime does not want to do as it struggles for legitimacy. And many Egyptians themselves are different now than how they were under Mubarak – they have come to believe that serious change is possible, and they are willing to risk their lives for it. It's not clear what could have stopped the thousands of young men (and a few women) who stormed through the Giza District.

As an activist said in her live Tweet, "Today we toppled an Israeli separation wall!" By comparing this wall to the one the Zionists erected to imprison Palestinians on the West Bank, many people seem to have been expressing the way they see the connection between American domination of the Middle East, the centrality of Israel in that and the way that they feel they and all of Egypt have been kept imprisoned by this situation. The crowd was euphoric when the first few dozen protesters broke into the compound. Then came events that underlined the truth of exactly what the protesters were denouncing.

Articles in the Israeli press claim that top Egyptian officials avoided taking phone calls from their Zionist counterparts. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was following the situation in real time, rang up US President Barack Obama. Describing the conversation, Netanyahu said, "I asked for his help. This was a decisive and fateful moment. He said, 'I will do everything I can.' And so he did. He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special debt of gratitude."

As another Egyptian blogger pointed out, it is a supreme irony that Obama, who never said a word when Israel flaunted international law by attacking the Turkish relief ship bound for Gaza and killing nine passengers, and who remained silent while Israel illegally bombed and assaulted Gaza in 2008-09, felt it necessary to warn Egypt that it was required by its international treaty obligations to protect the Israeli embassy. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the top American officials who got in touch with their Egyptian colleagues warned of "consequences" if the attack on the embassy was not stopped.

During the night the Egyptian regime moved in tanks, armored cars and soldiers to reinforce the police. The assault on the embassy turned into a battle between youth and police. At least three protesters were killed and more than a thousand injured in the fighting between youth hurling rocks and setting vehicles on fire, and security forces who tear gassed, charged and tried to run over them. Protesters threatened the nearby Saudi Arabian embassy, chanting "Saudi Arabia and Mubarak are one hand!" They also defaced a security forces headquarters.

Meanwhile, demonstrations were also going on in Luxor and other Upper Egypt cities.

By morning, Egyptian commandos managed to free the few Israeli embassy personnel left behind in a fortified room. The police arrested dozens of people throughout the night, and many more the next  day – about 130 so far. They raided the Al Jazeera offices and shut down its Egyptian broadcasting service that often features protest footage. Armored cars and troop carriers filled the square around the embassy. Above all, instead of dropping emergency rule as the demonstrators demanded and the generals had promised, the junta announced that it would revive the law's powers to ban demonstrations and send civilians before military tribunals on an even more massive scale. Those arrested for protesting martial law would be tried under martial law.

Yet a blogger wrote the next day, "This is the first time I haven't been depressed since the referendum" (in February, when the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood teamed up to win a high percentage of popular participation in an electoral exercise whose subtext was that street politics have come to an end and the country's future will be decided by the elections scheduled for November). It remains to be seen how long the initiative youth have snatched back will remain in their hands. Surely the regime's counter-attack is very serious. But the military has been forced to do exactly what it has been trying to avoid: to reveal a bit of its ultimate capitulation, willing or not, to American and Israeli interests, even against its own short-term interests, and its determination to put a violent end to the very process of popular revolt that it claims to represent. These are not factors in the regime's favour.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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