Late last August, the aftershocks of the Egyptian uprising reached the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Urged on by a crowd of demonstrators angered over Israel’s killing of several Egyptian soldiers on the Sinai border after militants had carried out a bold attack inside Israel, Ahmed Al Shehat scaled the 22-storey building in Cairo’s Giza neighbourhood and snatched the Israeli flag down, replacing it with Egypt’s.
Three weeks after the so-called “flagman” incident, protesters marched from Tahrir Square to the embassy, tearing down a concrete security wall. After clashing all night with police amid a haze of tear gas, demonstrators stormed the embassy, seizing classified documents and flinging them from the windows. As this drama was unfolding in Cairo, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, convened his security cabinet in Jerusalem and anxiously awaited information on the fate of the embassy’s stricken staff.
These protests were sparked by a chain of events that had begun with a pair of routine but deadly Israeli attacks in Gaza. Two days after those strikes, Egyptian gunmen launched a three-pronged attack using Kalashnikovs and a roadside bomb near the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, killing six civilians and one soldier. Israeli forces pursued the attackers across the Egyptian border, killing several soldiers in the process. Three nights of Israeli air raids on Gaza, killing 14 Palestinians, followed this cross-border violence. Further stoking Egyptian anger, Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak refused to apologise for the deaths.
The ransacking of the embassy, one of only two that Israel maintains in the Arab world, was a stark illustration of a new political reality: Israel could no longer rely on its stalwart ally, the ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, to suppress Egyptian opposition to Israeli military action in Gaza, in the Sinai or elsewhere.
Any overreaching by Israel risked the safety of its diplomatic staff and the stability of its diplomatic position in Egypt, Israel’s largest and most important neighbour. Political instability in Egypt, coupled with a deepening sense of isolation in Israel, creates a situation in which radical posturing can be used for cheap political gain. The flagman episode aside, both governments will respect the peace treaty between the two, but resentment of Israel will remain a fixture of Egyptian political reality, while fear will continue to dominate the discourse in Israel. Several officials confirmed the embassy protests marked a turning point. Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington, Abdel Raouf El Reedy, said in an interview in his high-rise overlooking the Nile: “I think the Israelis are going to be more careful about shooting, because it demonstrated that it could grow into a big problem for both sides. And it cannot be guaranteed that they [Egyptians] will be controlled. It was a lesson.”
Through conversations with the generals, ambassadors, secret policemen and intellectuals who have been at the crossroads of this uneasy marriage between Egypt and Israel for the last 30 years, a picture emerged of a relationship built on steady foundations despite the shift in dynamics and the overheated rhetoric emerging from the mainstream press in both countries. Contrary to dire predictions from some Israeli officials as well as right-wing commentators in the United States playing on fears of a hardline Islamist administration in Egypt, the country’s newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, will not withdraw from the peace treaty with Israel, nor can he afford to curtail security cooperation, given the two countries’ mutual interest in maintaining calm along their shared border. The question now is whether Israel’s leaders understand that while the treaty is safe, their military options have changed.