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Defiance in Tel Aviv

Egypt’s Awakening, Israel’s Denial

by AMIRA HOWEIDY

Israel which lost its “strategic asset” -as some of its leaders accurately described ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak- has been watching the Egyptian revolution since its onset with a mix of apprehension and concern, but its been watching closely nonetheless. Yet for some reason its military decided on 18 and 19 August to test the revolution -or otherwise provoke it- when its air force violated the Egyptian northeastern border in its hunt for Palestinian militants and launched air strikes that subsequently killed six Egyptian police guards.

Despite public outrage in Egypt, Israel’s leaders expressed only “regret” but would not offer an apology. Nor had it done so in the past under Egypt’s Mubarak when it “accidentally” killed several dozen borders guards and civilians without consequences over the years. It got away with it then and might have thought it can reassert its impunity with the new Egypt now.

But what is surprising here is Tel Aviv’s apparent misreading of the new reality across its southern border- its failure to assess the size and depth of public hostility towards Israel, despite the 32-year-old “peace” agreement with Cairo.

Israel’s decision makers and even mainstream media appeared only to see official Egypt which refused to respond to the public demand of recalling Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv in retaliation. Yes, alarm bells were sounded all over Israeli editorials when protests relocated from Tahrir square on 19 August to the Israeli embassy in Giza and when a young building constructer scaled the 23 storey building, to remove the Israeli flag amidst a state of national jubilation. But instead of bowing to the storm, Israel’s military leaders declared to the Israeli daily Haaretz (22 August) that the 1979 peace agreement should be amended to allow for an upgrade in Egyptian military presence in Sinai’s demilitarized buffer zone to man Israel’s southern borders. In other words the Egyptian army should be allowed to deploy over Egyptian soil in their new job description as Israel’s police guards.

Meanwhile Tel Aviv continued to defy its once powerful ally Ankara by refusing to apologize for killing nine of its nationals on the Mavi Marmara Gaza bound aid ship while in international waters in May 2010. Israel left Turkey with no choice but to expel its ambassador in Ankara and suspend six military joint agreements on 2 September.

Naturally, this resonated instantly with the Egyptians who demanded no less from their military rulers but were let down. So on 9 September where a million man demonstration was called for in Tahrir square, very young and angry protestors vented their rage in two locations: the Interior ministry that remains repressive despite the revolution and the Israeli embassy for defying their national pride and dignity. This time not one, but two men removed the Israeli flag after thousands destroyed a provocative 3 meter high wall recently erected by the authorities to discourage demonstrations. This developed into the unexpected and unprecedented storming of the embassy.

Four Egyptians were killed that day and over 1,000 suffered injuries in clashes with armies of police. Both the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Essam Saraf government condemned the events in harsh wording, vowing to severely punish those held accountable.

While Israel found comfort in the above sacrifices offered by Egypt’s unelected rulers, and the reaction of apologists here who described the embassy events as “uncivilized” and “derailment from the revolution’s goals” it continued, once again, to overlook the real player in the revolutionary Egypt: the people themselves.

In the same vein, many Israeli editorials decided to draw a separation between the civilized “revolutionaries” of Tahrir Square from the unruly “mobs” who stormed the embassy, concluding that the latter do not represent the revolution.

But if this is indeed the situation in Egypt, why the anxiety over the warm reception of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan’s two day visit to Cairo last week? Isn’t Egypt’s revolution solely limited to domestic issues? Aren’t Egyptians, as the Israeli narrative goes, only concerned with democracy and improving living conditions and have no interest in national independence, dignity, pride or stability at their borders, clearly volatile because of the Israeli occupation?

Today Tel Aviv has to decide whether it wants to read the revolution’s graffiti on the wall and understand that it’s the people, not a confused government or a military council that lacks imagination beyond Mubarak’s mindset, who hold the cards to Egypt’s future. Any democratically elected government will not revive the defeatist -if not subservient- foreign policy that Mubarak and his successor Anwar El-Sadat engineered.

Their legacy was buried in Tahrir square by a people’s revolution and a struggle that was born ten years ago out of the nation-wide solidarity movement with the second Palestinian Intifada. It evolved – against all odds and – into the anti-Mubarak dissent movement that eventually toppled him on 11 February.

Amira Howeidy is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo. She’s written extensively about Egypt’s dissent movement and the Palestinian question.