Three are dead and about 1,200 injured following the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by thousands of Egyptian citizens on Friday. The crowd destroyed a security wall surrounding the embassy while police and soldiers stood by, apparently unclear how to react. Once the embassy walls had been breached, soldiers began firing shots into the air and using tear gas; the rioters responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Rioters tore down, shredded, and set fire to the Israeli flag, then set about trashing the embassy offices, hurling papers out of the windows and rampaging through the hallways. Six members of the embassy’s staff were trapped inside the building for thirteen hours until they were rescued by Egyptian commandos. “The mob penetrated the embassy and at the end there was only one wall separating it from six of our people,” an Israeli official told The New York Times. The Israeli Air Force evacuated the ambassador, along with about 85 other Israeli diplomats and their families. A state of emergency has been declared in Egypt.
Rioters are reported to have also “menaced” the nearby Saudi Arabian embassy. Saudi Arabia is blamed by many for the slow pace of retribution against toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Haaretz reports that the Americans prodded the Egyptians to rescue the Israeli staff members to prevent an even more serious crisis from developing. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called Supreme Military Council head Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and warned him of “very severe consequences” should any of the Israelis fall into the hands of the mob. The U.S. source quoted by Haaretz noted that it took Tantawi two hours to answer Panetta’s call, and according to an Israeli source, he refused to come to the phone at all to speak to Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu or DM Ehud Barak. Netanyahu was eventually able to reach the head of Egyptian intelligence, Gen. Murad Muwafi, while Barak called Panetta.
The motivation for the attack is said to be popular outrage at the alleged killing by Israel of five Egyptian border guards when Israeli forces pursued terrorists back into Egyptian territory following the coordinated infiltration and assault on Israeli civilians near Eilat last month. The character of the mob suggests another layer, however: it consisted substantially of Ultras, who are identified by the Times as “hard-core soccer fans.” A few days ago, violence broke out at a soccer match that left the Ultras wanting revenge on the police. The Israel-bashing may have been, for at least a good chunk of the participants, an opportunity to throw rocks or worse into the faces of police officers.
Voices across the political spectrum in Egypt, from liberals to Islamists, have condemned the embassy attack, with young leaders of the revolution going so far as to call a press conference to criticize the military for failing to provide adequate security. (It is also to be noted that the rioter who scaled the flagpole and ripped down the Israeli flag that had hung there for thirty years is today a national hero, and has been given an award by the governor of Giza.)
Israel is watching with a kind of sober dismay as its relationship with Egypt disintegrates in parallel with the crisis in its relationship with Turkey, a pair of messes that form a grim backdrop to the ominous, and imminent, declaration of statehood by the Palestinians. Haaretz, true to form, blames Israel for all of this: Egypt and Turkey apparently hate us because of Operation Cast Lead in 2008, and the Palestinians hate us for being, well, us. For his part, Bibi is busy thanking the Americans for stepping in to help, vowing Israel’s allegiance to the Egyptian peace treaty, and making sure we’re prepped for whatever treats the Palestinians have in store for us following their torpedoing of the Oslo Accords on the floor of the Security Council later this month.
The Egyptian military council, which has been trying to maintain a revolution-friendly face while keeping some semblance of control over the country, is going to have to commit itself one way or the other, and soon. The embassy assault “has led to a complete loss of credibility in the [Egyptian] government internationally from all directions,” an unnamed Western diplomat told the Times. In a striking reversal of course, the military council said last night that it will reactivate the “emergency law” that permits extra-judicial detentions in the wake of the violence. An end to indefinite detention without trial was one of the signal demands of the protesters during the revolution that brought down Mubarak.