It’s all revolution goddamit.

I don’t usually like to expound on events I haven’t witnessed first hand (I was stuck at home with flu) but can’t shut up about what happened at the Israeli Embassy last night, or more specifically the response to what happened at the Israeli Embassy last night.

What happened (according to media reports) is that after protesters dismantled the hideous wall erected by the army last week outside the Israeli Embassy a group entered the building housing the Embassy. They were able to gain access to one floor of the two-level Embassy where they threw documents out of the window. There were apparently some diplomatic staff on the building’s upper floor, and one member of staff was accosted by the group and the Military Police had to rescue him. The Israeli flag was removed, again.

The Ambassador and almost all diplomatic staff were evacuated by an Israeli military jet.

Later on riot police finished whatever it was they had been doing for the past eight hours and using their typically light-handed approach and, having lost control, used armoured vehicles to drive at protesters.

Much of the criticism (on Twitter and Facebook) centers around Egypt’s obligation to protect diplomatic missions under international law. The Vienna Convention applies to states not citizens. The criticism levelled against protesters in this regard is thus confusing; why didn’t the army and the police protect the building?

Because this is a trap set by SCAF for protesters, has largely been the response. Commenting on my Facebook friend Per Bjorklund says this:

Some people might not see this as the SCAF losing control but an example of what some elements in society will do when left to their own devices. Trying to spread confusion and fear by creating a sense of chaos and disorder isn’t exactly an unusual tactic for regimes facing popular uprisings. Riots and violence will always push a lot of people to support any force for stability, whether the military or the ikhwan, even if a majority support the cause – in this case chasing the ambassador out of the country. Even within “the movement” some people will think things have gone to far, which will create divisions. It seems like this has been the strategy of the SCAF for seven months now because it’s basically their only option – but that doesn’t mean they will succeed or that the Egyptian street won’t see through it, or that the revolutionaries should back down from future confrontations.

On the basis of what I saw on Al Jazeera Mubasher and on Twitter it does seem that the army allowed the Embassy to be breached rather than being overpowered. As we saw when protesters attempted to march to the Ministry of Defence on July 23 2011 when the army doesn’t want something to happen, it doesn’t happen.

The suggestion is that since general publics everywhere love draconian measures (as long as they don’t directly fall victim to them) SCAF engineered a situation whereby a mob of braying barbarians broke into and ransacked the Embassy, attacked the nearby Giza Security Directorate before engaging in a violent street battle with the fuzz.

The theory goes that this allows SCAF to impose draconian measures as part of a noble attempt to stop the barbarian hoards from dragging Egypt into a cycle of chaotic violence that will culminate in war with Israel, activists using amateur DIY hammers to knock down the billion dollar wall built by the US and Israel on Egypt’s border with Gaza, Khaled El-Meshal being elected President of Egypt and the closure of Carrefour and City Stars.

My only problem with this is that 1. SCAF have been imposing draconian measures for the past 8 months, seemingly oblivious to criticism 2. They don’t need to engineer situations to do what the fuck they want and 3. the draconian measures (12,000 people tried in military courts) have done nothing to discourage felons nor encourage the police to do their job of maintaining law and order.

The argument that protesters have given SCAF the perfect excuse to clamp down on them thus strikes me as odd. What exactly were SCAF doing in the past 8 months if not clamping-down on dissent? Yes of course they could escalate, but allowing the risk of a SCAF escalation to dictate protest strategy amounts to giving up.

SCAF have criminalised protests, used violence – sometimes fatal violence – against protesters and orchestrated a dangerous media campaign aimed at discrediting its opposition, all while failing to carry out the promises it has made. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it doesn’t require a reason for an escalation.

Public sentiment is different however, and matters. As mentioned above, there continue to exist security problems in parts of Egypt post-revolution. SCAF and others have exploited the general public’s legitimate fears about their safety by somehow linking the absence of security and stability to peaceful protests.

As far as I’m aware, all the protest violence Egypt has witnessed since the revolution has been between protesters and security forces and the result of heavy-handed policing tactics. The telling exception to this is the clashes between anti and pro-Mubarak protesters outside his trial. The point is that violent protests are frightening and unwelcome but they are 1. Avoidable if policed properly and, 2. Nothing to do with the general disorder caused by the security vacuum.

Alas however the army’s media machine speaks loudest and also The Army Is Always Right.

The public is more or less generally always fed up with protests, but seems particularly so when the cause is Palestine. While there is of course a strong pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli current in Egyptian society, there are also numerous others who think that Egypt has done enough for Palestine and are happy with the status quo. Some people think the timing isn’t right, because Egypt has a priority to get its domestic affairs in order before thinking about foreign policy issues.

I would argue that Egypt’s relationship with Israel is part of domestic affairs, because it is a legacy of the Mubarak era, and cleansing Egypt of traces of Mubarak is what the revolution was about. It’s one thing to make concessions as part of a peace deal with a neighbouring state, quite another to put the priorities of that neighbouring state and its patron above everything else, even to the extent that when six Egyptian officers (never mind the thousands killed in Gaza, whose border Egypt semi-controls) were killed by the Israeli army Egypt barely made a sound.

The final, and most irritating, criticism of last night’s action are the suggestions that breaking into the Embassy is somehow “uncivilized”, and tarnishes the image of the revolution.

While largely peaceful, police stations and other symbols of the state were targeted and attacked during the revolution on Friday 28 January. In February, activists entered Nasr City’s State Security Investigations building and turned it over. I don’t remember anyone condemning the protesters for that.

Protesters did not go on a rampage randomly targeting embassies. They stormed the diplomatic mission of an apartheid, occupying, murderous state. Israel protested. You’d of thought Israel would be the first to understand what drives people to trespass on, and occupy, what is not theirs.

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23 Responses to It’s all revolution goddamit.

  1. Kareem H says:

    Problem is mis-communication and machismo ya Sarah. Sadat and military establishment are accused by some of treason for signing the peace treaty, even though they are the only ones who fought successful military battles against it. We need to separate between current political evaluations and historical circumstance – historically the country was bankrupt and simply needed a peace time period of rebuilding, without which it wouldn’t have been able to fight another battle even if it wanted to, and without which the communication of this revolution could not have happened.

    For me the real traitor was his predecessor who haphazardly led our unprepared armies to consecutive military defeats at the hand of Israel.

    Mobs invading an embassy brings this haphazardness to mind; at this pace army will next march again on Sinai and war will eventually break out again. Another fact that people need to recognize is that the treaty was signed with a popular mandate, coming out of 6 wars this country fought in the span of only 25 years. This explains the reactions you see – it was never really a love story with Israel.

    Elect a proper parliament and representative leaders who will come up with more novel ways to rebuild the country and resist Israel – mob mentality will do neither, we tried it before.

    (P.s. No one citing the dignity of the 6 Egyptian soldiers killed by Israel still ever mentions anything about those that have also been killed by Hamas.)

  2. Robert H says:

    Invading an embassy is yet another example of Egyptian And other Arabs civility and general regard and recognition of laws and treaties. What’s next? The American embassy a la Teheran 1979?

  3. Jameel says:

    I don’t understand: If army attacks, they are violent motherfuckers, if army stands still, they are conspiring motherfuckers…. What a schizophrenic twitter-population we have here.

  4. ME says:

    Whether you believe it was coordinated by government/filool or whether it was pure mass mob mentality – the enabling force behind either of these explanations is the lack of trust. In democratic governments the foreign policy reflects the will of the people and, most importantly, there is a partial avenue by which members of the populace can understand and/or affect their nation’s foreign policy. For example, the United States government publishes every year how much money is given to Egypt, Israel and other countries in Foreign Military Funding, democracy support, civil society development, etc. and at times of financial crises as we are experiencing the population demands that these amounts are decreased – and fearing for his job – the US president complies to some degree – or at least tries to explain why it is necessary, how it saves money in the long term, etc. Unlike citizens of most democratic nations, wikileaks embassy cables was the first time I, as an Egyptian citizen, understood what our defense ministry was doing, their thinking and the extent of their relationship (and dictates) by the United States. What this means is that, for decades now, our foreign policy has been beyond not only our control, but our knowledge too. The reason I believe this trust gap to be the culprit is because the Israeli embassy was only stormed after the murder of 5 Egyptian soldiers by Israeli forces and the, largely considered, apathetic response from SCAF – the people thought that the government (SCAF) was not standing up for Egyptian’s dignity and thus they felt they had to take it into their own hands. This belief was further reinforced when one of the goals of the intruders (wouldn’t call them protesters so as not to soil the word) was tossing documents into the air, with the expectation that backroom deals were made that served Mubarak/SCAF and Israel at the expense of the Egyptian people.

    So yes, while people may react and demand a stronger hand from the military and slow down the move towards openness, transparency and democracy as a result of yesterday’s actions – I truly believe that will only further this trust gap and there needs to be an understanding as to how people can regain trust in the government and ensure that the military/government does not (continue) to take actions that negatively affects Egypt while serving their own interests.

    To Jameel’s comment: Yes, when you have no trust in your leaders that is the result – you assume their actions are done to serve their own interests. Somewhat of a stupid analogy but its like spouses who have been cheated on, if their partner is travelling and calls all the time then they are trying to hide that they are cheating by overcompensating and if they don’t call at all then he is being shady and likely off cheating. It is the cheating partner’s job to recreate that trust, not the cheated parties job to be expected to be trustworthy once again by default. (especially when we as the Egyptian people have been “cheated on” countless times).

  5. I will go out on a limb with this, but the chaos around spreading the papers and the storming of the embassy may have been friendly fire. I agree that the SCAF have been clamping down on dissent ever since they took power. This is just an extension. Having been there at the embassy for some time I have plenty of reason to suspect that a great part of this is orchestrated by the SCAF and the police themselves.

    This is the same strategy of spreading thuggery and using it as an excuse for military trials. Now they will continue in this strategy. Contrary to what some might think, they do need an excuse, just like the gulf of tonkin incident. They are continuously providing excuses and this is nothing special.

  6. Nadia says:

    Perceptive remark about people overreacting in this particular case because it involves Palestine. The hand-wringing and sense of panic on the part of activists, twitterati and political commentators (many of them sympathetic to the cause of Palestine) strikes me as a bit nuts. Such is the power of the Zionist state, which, granted, is far more resilient than the current talk of political tsunamis and glacial weather fronts would have you believe. And very sad that people had to die in this incident.

    I agree that you can’t artificially (and in many cases, disingenuously) disentangle Egypt’s foreign policy from its domestic affairs, and mob or no mob, this wouldn’t have happened were there not a climate of deeply felt hostility to Israel in the country as a whole. But I do think that Egypt needs time to build itself from within and that Palestine can be a potent distraction. Only a free Egypt will be able to build a deterrent force and, probably with some luck, find novel ways of resisting Israel (which, incidentally, is the only part of Kareem H’s comment with which I agree).

  7. Hager El Hadidi says:

    This was a set up–it only takes one or two feluls and plenty of angry youth to have an attack. I love the argument as a whole. I think it is very astute.

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  9. Ahmed says:

    Sarah, since you were not there on the ground how could you conclude that they were protectors and they didn’t go on a rampage? I live in the building right next to the building where the embassy is housed. These mob not protesters, smashed our building entrance, banged on our doors trying to enter and scared the fuck out of our kids, smashed every glass they could find and entered an office on the first floor of our building took the documents and stole the computers. There is at least one more flat that has been broken into and damaged, they smashed cars parked in our garage and stole car keys. Some of the so called protesters were 10 to 12 years old cursing the army and security forces with words I find difficult to translate. If that is peaceful demonstrations for a great cause like Palestine or the six Egyptians soldiers who were killed then I wouldn’t want to see the violent demonstrations.

    Just to be fair both last weekend as will as the previous riots that took place by the embassy, the army and the security never started the fighting and stone throwing, however last Friday security in our street was very lax despite the fact we all knew they were coming to smash down provoking wall that was build last week.

  10. yqxo says:

    Problem is that the public opinion was known, SCAF knew protests will eventually overcome the wall and enter the Israeli Embassy. They did nothing to protect it, simple as that.

    Compare how they secured the State TV during uprising: several layers of barbed wire fences, tanks & soldiers. They knew that public was not friendly about State TV and they protected it.

    How come they forgot to protect the embassy? We don’t need to answer Why? Outcomes are hard to guess, in hindsight the reason might be harder to guess. Only thing matters is the fact that they didn’t protect it alas knowing it was a flash point.

  11. BG says:

    Not sure I entirely agree with you on the following statement:

    “The final, and most irritating, criticism of last night’s action are the suggestions that breaking into the Embassy is somehow “uncivilized”, and tarnishes the image of the revolution.”

    I think it comes down to whether the ends justify the means. Yes, Israel may be an apartheid, occupying, murderous state, and yes, we may want the ambassador out of Egypt. But that doesn’t mean that the correct way to do it is to attack/vandalize the embassy, destroy property, break into nearby houses and cars, etc. The resulting destruction may not have been the primary purpose of the protesters, but only they can take responsibility for any related collateral damage.

    I think the problem is that the legitimate protesters are being followed by the mob. Therefore, even if they have a strong case to make, there’s always a mob overshadowing them and staining their cause. Frequent protests are bound to attract rioters which will only cause things to spin out of control.

    It’s time for us all to start developing other methods to exert pressure. Non-violent protests worked very well and brought us really far. That doesn’t mean they are the best or only method to keep pushing forward. Some creativity is badly needed.

  12. Constant reader says:

    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Maybe SCAF doesn’t love Israel and its walls as much as Israel and its walls want to be loved. Maybe SCAF knows how to look the other way when looking the other way serves the action of local vindictive drama SCAF approves. After all the years of news of Israel bulldozing walls of Palestinian houses, building miles of walls to take Palestinian land, when I first heard the news of a destroyed wall, a wall to protect the building that housed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, I laughed. I didn’t think at all or want to know the story. I laughed. Peace process, what a joke. Now, where will the money come from to rebuild that pesky wall? Make it bigger, higher, meaner.

  13. Liz says:

    Will you be okay with a group of Salafis of the same size and with the same (low) level of public support attacking buildings they don’t approve of?

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  16. Constant reader says:

    Yes Sarah, even Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy.com acknowledges your existence.

    http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/09/10/the_israeli_embassy_disaster

    He’s safe and dry, somewhere in America (Washington?), commenting on things. The word Democracy is very important to him. He, like many American writers, knows how to condescend under the cover of informing, worrying, advising. Maybe he could have helped you with your kitchen.

  17. Per Björklund says:

    Ya Sarah, I agree with much of what you say. I just want to point out that arguing that the army somehow set the storming of the embassy up or allow it to happen does not in any way imply criticism of the protestors. My main argument in the comment you quoted was not that the Egyptians in general will welcome more draconian measures (some might, but I don’t think the SCAF care very much about public opinion any way) because of the embassy attack, it was that some within the opposition will always react to events like these (especially then they relate to Israel/Palestine) by urging “restraint.” The fact that liberal parties and even some “revolutionary” youth activists condemned the storming of the embassy and the quite intense debate that followed it are signs that the SCAF actually succeeded in dividing the movement this time – as opposed to their previous unprovoked attacks on protestors in Tahrir which only served to unite more people against the military. I only say this because I think it’s wise to be clear about the SCAF’s intentions. As a matter of principle I’m not going to tell Egyptian revolutionaries how to behave, which protests to call for and not – after all it’s their revolution, not mine :)

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  19. fareed says:

    Nice blog, commentary, and replies. I wasn’t there but can’t stop myself from mentioning a factor that doesn’t seem to have been considered above. SCAF may not feel that Egyptian opinion should constrain it from repressive behavior. But here in the US its behavior is under scrutiny from a media that has, until now, been generally sympathetic towards the Arab Awakening and towards the Egyptian Revolution in particular. This will now change dramatically, and nothing could have achieved that change more effectively than images of the Israeli Embassy being “sacked”. Egyptian revolutionaries will now be lumped together with Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. Note that most media comment here is not allowing any hint that some Egyptians might not have been thrilled to see that building burned down. This will give the SCAF a free hand should it decide to label troublesome critics as you know what.

    BTW, what is the story behind the horrendous casualty figures we heard (1000 wounded?)? Were the injured security personnel, protestors, embassy employees, bystanders, neighbours? Were they the result of the protest, the police actions? Any sense of the severity of the injuries?

    • fareed says:

      I should clarify-I’m not suggesting that the SCAF deliberately engineered the incident ( I don’t know one way or the other). I’m just saying that they could (hypothetically) calculate an advantage in doing so, depending on their intentions.

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