CAIRO — The surprise assault on Israel’s embassy in Cairo has pushed Egypt’s ruling military deeper into confrontation with a protest movement openly accusing the country’s caretakers of trying to cling to the legacy of Hosni Mubarak rather than dismantle it.
A potentially destabilizing showdown between the two rivals now seems increasingly likely.
Israel, not surprisingly, saw the rioting and break-in by protesters — who exuberantly trashed offices and threw documents out the window — in the context of its peace deal with Egypt. It seemed an ominous sign of Egyptians’ hatred of Israel unleashed and running wild.
But Egypt’s generals were just as much the target of the protesters.
The scene was a message to the military that while they may rule, they can’t carry the power by intimidation that Mubarak did. Protesters, and a growing part of the public, are becoming increasingly critical of a military they say is too close to the old regime, doing little to bring democracy and committing new abuses of its own.
“It is a conflict between a party that is trying to reproduce the old regime and a revolution that continues to press for its demands to be met,” said protest leader Khaled Abdel-hamid.
The military has responded to the Friday night attack on the Israeli embassy by warning that the country’s stability is in danger.
In a statement read on state TV, the military and the civilian government said Egypt was passing through a crisis “that threatens the very body of the state.” The leadership vowed to use tough emergency laws that were the hated hallmark of Mubarak’s 29-year regime.
“We are now somewhere between revolution and chaos, between toppling a regime and toppling the entire state,” the government-owned Al-Ahram daily warned Sunday in a front page editorial.
That smacks of preparation for a heavier crackdown of some sort, according to some in the youth-dominated groups who led the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak in February. The army, they believe, is ruling with the same authoritarian attitude as Mubarak and is willing to keep most of his former regime in place.
The storming of the embassy came amid a 13-hour rampage during which thousands of protesters battled riot police and army troops outside the high-rise building housing the Jewish state’s diplomatic mission. At least three people were killed and more than 1,000 hurt in the clashes. Some 130 protesters have been arrested and the military says it will refer them to emergency trials.
For many protesters, the aim was to tell the military that it cannot continue in the strongly pro-Israeli policies of Mubarak, who built close economic and security ties with Israel.
Notably, the protesters focused their rage Friday on a concrete wall that the Egyptian military erected outside the Israeli Embassy last month. It was put up to keep protests back after Israeli forces killed six Egyptian policemen in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel says last month’s killing was a mistake as its forces pursued militants behind an attack inside Israel that killed eight people.
To protesters, the wall was a sign that, like Mubarak, the military was more eager to protect Israelis than Egyptians.
“We don’t want to have a war with Israel,” Ibrahim Ezzat said outside the embassy just hours after it was stormed. “But if they attack, we have to respond. We always thought of our army as our sole guardian, but after what happened, something has to be done.”
Since Friday, doctors and baggage handlers at Cairo’s international airport have gone on strike, tens of thousands of school teachers have staged a noisy street protest, and ethnic Nubians campaigning for equal rights stormed local government offices.
“Egypt is at a crossroads right now,” said Emad Gad from Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. “We have to watch and see how the military council is going to act. Either it will have a plan, a vision, impose law and order and restore the state’s prestige, or they will have no plans and, therefore, no power to stop us from descending into chaos.”\
Printed on September 12, 2011 as: Egypt military clashes with protesters