Egyptians vent fury as troops defend Israel mission

Reuters , Sunday 11 Sep 2011

As the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is preoccupied with managing the Israeli embassy crisis, many analysts think of public hostility towards Israel as what pushed Egyptian protesters to break into the embassy

Egypt & Israel
Protesters tear down a concrete wall built in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo (Photo:Reuters)

Mustafa Yahya's mother wailed and tore her robe in the Cairo hospital where her son's body lay in the morgue, accusing her own country's troops of killing him as they defended Israel's embassy from protesters overnight.

"To hell with Israel. Why is the army protecting Israel and killing my children?" she screamed, voicing the popular anger that has been well and truly unleashed since five Egyptian border guards were killed last month in an Israeli operation against a cross-border militant raid.

The morgue where the body of Yahya's 24-year-old son was taken is close to the scene of the violence, where spent bullet casings littered the street and the whiff of teargas filled the air. Israel's ambassador was flown out after protesters stormed the building housing its mission.

The violence, the second time such fierce scenes have flared outside the mission, might have been avoided, analysts say.

"What happened was not a surprise, it reveals political mismanagement of the crisis," said military analyst Safwat al-Zayaat.

But the fact it was not averted reflects the dilemma facing the army as it grapples with governing Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, for whom a 1979 peace treaty with Israel was a pillar of the foreign policy that secured him regional muscle.

"It is a difficult situation that needs some wisdom and perseverance to deal with it," said Adel Soliman, director of the International Centre for Future and Strategic Studies.

"Israel will try to make use of the situation to make the incident seem very serious so that it can cover for the real issue that fuelled popular anger," he said.

Egypt's ruling generals must balance calls for a tough response from an increasingly assertive population angry at Israel's treatment of Palestinians against the benefits of the treaty that guarantees billions of dollars of U.S. military aid.

For some ordinary Egyptians, the solution is simple.

"We don't want the Americans' money," aid Mohi Alaa, 24, speaking after a long night of protests outside the embassy.

When the border crisis erupted, Egypt briefly threatened to withdraw its ambassador. But it never followed through. That jars with many Egyptians, who have watched Turkey expel Israel's envoy in another feud while their own country, which they see as a regional leader, has not.


"When the five Egyptians were killed at the border, Egypt could have at least called its ambassador back from there for consultations or taken any measure to reassure the public who are now comparing what their government did and what Turkey did," military analyst Zayaat said.

The public mood was clear after Egypt put up a wall outside the embassy, which is housed in the upper floors of a high-rise block.

No sooner was the barrier erected than it was defaced with graffiti, such as "Egypt above all". On Friday, a group of about 20 protesters used metal poles to batter it and gathered support from hundreds more as they clambered over it with ropes to knock it over. "Tear it down," they chanted.

They had marched from a protest on the other side of the Nile in Tahrir Square, the centre of the pro-democracy demonstrations that drove out Mubarak on Feb. 11 and helped ignite the region.

Politicians and activists support the anti-Israel drive, but some criticised the violence.

Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy called for the army to take a "serious stance matching the public anger" towards Israel, but said violence sullied the image of Egypt's uprising.

The Health Ministry said 1,049 were injured and three people killed, including one in Agouza where Mustafa Yahya's body was. The statement on the state news agency did not name Yahya.

As well as wounded protesters, several police and troops near the embassy nursed injuries. One soldier had a bandage round his head. A policeman had a ripped shirt and his eye covered.

"We all have demands but this is not the way to get them," said police officer Ibrahaim Mohamed, 25, with a bandaged arm.

Some Egyptians questioned whether the embassy building should have been stormed at all.

"This is a normal reaction, but it should have limits. They shouldn't storm the embassy, this gives a negative picture of Egypt to the entire world," said a baker who did give his name.

And there were also those who sympathised with the challenge facing Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling army council and the armed forces Chief of Staff Sami Enan.

"They have been doing things for this country that nobody appreciates ... but I have faith that the army will solve everything," said 48-year-old café owner Mahmoud Abbas Mahmoud.

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