The storming of Cairo's Israeli embassy: an eyewitness account (part I)

Mostafa Ali, Saturday 10 Sep 2011

Despite Israeli denials, eyewitnesses verify that indeed revolutionaries broke into the Israeli Embassy in Giza, sending hundreds of documents out of the building and into the streets below

Egyptian flag over the Israeli embassy
An Egyptian flag flies over the Israeli embassy building, following a night in which protesters stormed the building, took down the Israeli flag, and broke into one embassy facility. (Photo: Reuters)

At around 6pm downtown, the numbers of protesters who had been calling for an end to military trials, among other demands on the ruling military council, was beginning to thin from tens of thousands earlier in the afternoon to thousands.

Many people were leaving Tahrir Square. However, a few thousand were not going home. They were heading to the Israeli Embassy located about four miles away from the square on the Giza bank of the Nile that divides Greater Cairo into two.

News had been arriving all afternoon that hundreds of protesters with hammers had been demolishing a wall that the Giza governorate had finished erecting just days before around the tall apartment building that houses the Israeli Embassy.

The governor of Giza wanted the wall to protect Tel Aviv's embassy from the wrath of Egyptians whose hostility to Israeli oppression of the Palestinians was greatly compouded by a recent Israeli attack inside Egyptian territory which left six Egyptian soldiers dead.

We, I and two other journalists, one Egyptian and the other American, could not find any taxis to give us a lift to the embassy. All taxi drivers had already heard through radio reports that big things were happening around the Israeli “compound” and declined a potential LE10 fare.

So we took a LE1 microbus that dropped us as close as possible to "hell".

As we made our way through streets filled with drivers anxious to avoid passing by the embassy, hundreds of young people carrying Egyptian flags and some Palestinian flags were hurrying on foot from all directions to join celebrations underway on Kobri El-Gamea, the bridge leading to the square on which the 22-storey building housing the embassy resides.

Some 30 years ago, the Israeli government picked this bizarre spot to house its embassy. Unlike nearly every other embassy in Cairo, the Israeli embassy is not housed in a palatial villa, but rather in three levels atop a fairly normal high rise building, far up and looking over a main thoroughfare in Giza.

The axis on which the building stands includes a circular square, off which also is located the Cairo Zoo and Cairo University 600 meters away on one side, and is separated in distance by 100 metres from the villa that houses the Saudi Embassy, and by 500 metres from the Giza headquarters of the Ministry of Interior on the other side.

Many Egyptians have believed for 30 years that Israel chose to implant its embassy in this specific location in order to be able to fly its Star of David, blue and white flag over the Nile.

We arrived on the scene and found at least 5000 people surrounding the building, and they were chanting “Down Down with Israel!” and celebrating.

The tall concrete wall, which for many Egyptians was an ugly reminder of Israel's notorious Separation Wall on the West Bank, had been turned to rubble.

People were walking around with big chunks of stones from the one week old barrier, planning to take them home as souvenirs. This was Egypt’s small “Berlin Wall” moment.

An army unit composed of a few tanks was still guarding the entrance to the building as it had for months since the outbreak of the revolution on 25 January. Otherwise, all was peaceful.

At around 8pm, a few young people started climbing the building using ropes apparently in order to get to the 21st floor windows.

The crowds egged them on, hoping that they would bring down the Israeli flag from the roof as Ahmed Shahat, a young Egyptian in his 20s, had done two weeks ago, earning himself the title, Egypt's Spiderman. However, the climbers could not get past the fourth level.

Moments later, hundreds stormed the entrance to the building.

As I could not see exactly what was happening near that entrance because of crowd numbers, I had to rely on reports from those closer to the building to find out what happened then. Most reports confirmed that an army officer or two in charge of the unit did very little to stop the crowds.

Twenty minutes later, the crowd outside the building, which was still growing in numbers, spotted several young people waving Egyptian flags from the 20th storey balcony, just one level beneath the embassy penthouse.

I was able to confirm later that 100-200 people occupied the building and that tens managed to break into the embassy.

Suddenly, around 9pm or so, a small unit of Central Security Forces (CSF), the notorious Egyptian riot police, showed up in the area but did not head towards protesters and instead, made its way 50 metres away from the crowd, leaving soldiers in full riot gear to block the entrance of the Saudi Embassy just around the corner.

At this point, hundreds of young people clashed with riot police up and down the Saudi Embassy side street for about half an hour. Protesters most likely set ablaze two CSF trucks, while a couple of trees also caught fire

Some walked back from the fresh clashes with several "Made in USA" canisters of tear gas that they snatched from soldiers, and displayed them to the larger crowds.

As a firetruck worked to put out the fire on the Saudi street, CSF soldiers disappeared from the scene and things seemed to calm down in that part of the arena.

Suddenly, at around 10pm or 10:30pm, the skies filled up to a saturation point with thousands of 8” by 11” sheets of paper coming down from the top of the embassy building.

As the papers made their way down slowly onto the pavement, the crowd and I included were first under the impression that the revolutionaries were sending us a photocopied political statement of some sort.

We caught the papers and examined them. It took hundreds of people a few minutes of sorting through them before we realised that we were looking at Israeli Embassy records in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

It began to slowly dawn on us that the people upstairs in the building managed to actually break into the embassy. At this moment the crowd went wild and started pushing and shoving to catch whatever papers were coming down from the heavens.

Those who could not catch fallen documents gathered in hundreds of small groups to read what others caught, and took pictures with mobile phones. I walked from one group of “examiners” to the other trying to look at as many documents as possible.

There were records of phone deals between major Egyptian private and public telecommunications firms and Israel. I also saw documents that listed names of business transactions between the embassy and all sorts of Egyptian authorities, from customs officials to CEOs of tourism firms, bringing Israeli travelers to Egypt, and on and on.

Much of the confetti that was dropping on us dated back to the 1990s and even the 1980s, as its typeset indicated.

The revolutionaries upstairs sent at least six or seven separate sets of documents on us every 10 minutes or so for a whole hour. TV cameras hustled to interview dozens of people with documents that they believed showed the depth of the embassy’s penetration into the economic and political scene in Egypt.

I decided to walk around the corner to check on the CSF situation and buy a cup of tea from a street vendor. 

The vendor offered me a free tea and asked me in a semi-begging tone to bring him, in return, an “Israeli paper” because he could not walk away from his stand. 

I said I would do my best but I had no intention of going back to fight with tens of people, literally, over every document falling from the 21st floor.

At this point I lucked out as a “journalist”, you could say. A man in his early 20s, wearing a sleevless T-shirt, and drowned in sweat asked me for a cigarette. He listened to the conversation people were having about the documents and announced to us in a matter of fact manner that he had just come down from the 22nd floor.

He said that it took over two hours for a group made up of dozens of revolutionaries using hammers to demolish the walls and steel entrances to the embassy floor. I asked him to describe to me what the embassy looked like on the inside as a way of vetting the authenticity of his story. Instead, he pulled out a stack of 10 or so plastic-laminated Israeli embassy employee identification cards, with what appeared to be pictures and names of locals who worked in the compound, and said: “See this. That proves I was one of those who stormed the enemy’s house."

Around midnight or so, as thousands were still poring over the documents, battles erupted in a few seconds between a group of protesters and CSF units around the Giza Security Directorate headquarters yards away. 

In less than 10 minutes, smoke from tens of tear gas bombs and sounds of bullets filled the air and ended the festive atmosphere. Egypt’s Berlin Wall moment did not last more than a few hours.

Long standing hatred between Egypt’s still intact and widely despised CSF and Cairo’s revolutionaries and poor ushered into one long bloody night of street fighting.

The night of 9 September will go down as the bloodiest few hours that Egypt witnessed since Mubarak’s police rained hell on peaceful protesters on 28 January, three days after the outbreak of this unfinished revolution.

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