Israeli Embassy break-in raises questions over military’s motives

When he scaled the diminutive building adjacent to the one hosting the Israeli Embassy, Mostafa al-Sayed did not think that his actions – along with around 25 others – would have as wide-ranging implications as they did.

Since protesters broke into the Israeli Embassy last Friday night, and the ensuing clashes with security forces that left three dead, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced it is broadening the scope of the Emergency Law until June 2012, stretching the incumbent law into its 54th year.

The SCAF had originally announced that the state of emergency would end on 30 September, after issuing its constitutional declaration in March, in response to mounting street pressure demanding to abolish the law.

What prompted the current crackdown, however, remains a matter of contention.

“We were just trying to go up and take down the flag. We thought the media would treat us like heroes, like they did with Ahmed al-Shahat,” said Sayed, a 28-year-old factory worker. 

Local media dubbed Shahat "Flagman" for scaling the Israeli Embassy building and taking down the flag on 21 August during demonstrations following a border incident in which Israeli soldiers killed five Egyptian officers. He was also awarded an apartment and audience with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.

Last weekend’s Israeli Embassy scene followed the 9 September Tahrir demonstrations, which voiced demands for the independence of the judiciary and the end of military trials of civilians, among other things.

However, the main organizers of the day, such as the April 6 Youth Movement and the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, had only planned to demonstrate in the square and in front of the cabinet. Sayed says that those who managed to climb into the building all acted independently.

Those who took the embassy did so after the Egyptian authorities built a wall around the building that protesters tore down before breaking into the embassy. 

“The authorities provoked the Egyptians with building a separation barrier around the Israeli Embassy in a time like this, without showing any attempts to appease the people after the border killings,” said Coalition of Revolutionary Youth member Mohamed Shawky.

The events that ensued, he said, raise many questions. 

“It seemed like there wasn’t enough security protecting the embassy, especially relative to the days before. From where I was standing, it looked like those who scaled the building to take down the flag were allowed to do so,” Shawky said.

Eyewitnesses said that during the 15 May protests at the Israeli Embassy, the military quickly cracked down on the demonstrations and did not have a problem averting the attacks. Friday was the first time in 20 years that security forces allowed civilians to cross the side street onto the sidewalk of the embassy building without going through the normal checkpoints.

On the eve of the 9 September protests, the SCAF issued a statement saying it received information that some protesters were planning on attacking government buildings and warned them off, saying that “any violations will be dealt with sternly.”

“If they heard these rumors, why then did they scale down their security presence at these very facilities?” Shawky asked. Protesters also went to the Interior Ministry, vandalizing its exterior and an annex building.

Sayed said the conspicuous security vacuum outside the embassy could be felt inside the building as well. 

“Initially, we were briefly detained. But after taking down the flag, a major in the military met us on the way down and taunted us by saying we didn’t even reach the embassy, and pointed to where the embassy door was,” he said. 

For the next three hours – in full view of military personnel – the protesters in the embassy managed to break through the three doors leading to an embassy annex. That was the point at which they showered the masses at the foot of the building with the documents they found.

“We were unarmed, knowing how stern the military can be, we knew they could have detained us on the spot up there.  Some even came into the embassy apartment with us,” Sayed said, adding that he filmed it on his videophone. On the way down, they handed the rest of the documents to military personnel, who frisked them and sent them on their way. 

“Outside the embassy, I saw a battle was happening, and wondered why we were allowed to just walk out,” he said. More than 100 people were arrested in the clashes outside the embassy.

Sharaf’s government responded quickly.  Within one day the scope of emergency laws were broadened.  At the end of 2010, these laws had been restricted to dealing with terrorism and drug trafficking. Now Egyptian police, once again, are able to crack down on any crowd (defined as more than five people), as well as scrutinize the media at its own discretion.

“The speed at which the government implemented the new Emergency Law parameters makes it seem like they had the law ready, and were waiting for a reason to implement it,” said Adel Ramadan, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawy said the new measures would “end the terrorization of citizens.”

In a TV interview Essawy said that police were not able to use adequate force to deal with pronounced lawlessness, gang violence, and attacks on official facilities. International protocol also stipulates that the host country is responsible for the safety and security of its foreign delegations.

“They’re using one event to justify a completely unrelated law,” Ramadan said. The adequate protection of the Israeli Embassy is already incumbent on Egyptian security forces under normal laws. “The Emergency Law and its infringement on basic rights, such as freedom of speech and association, has nothing to do with what happened at the embassy and security forces’ ability to deal with the problem."

Ramadan further voiced his surprise at the reinstatement of the Emergency Law, given the fact that the Interior Ministry did not do that in March and April, when lawlessness was arguably at its peak.

Now political parties and candidates will be forced to compete under the emergency legislation in the coming November elections. This may entail huge restrictions on campaigning tools, such as public rallies and distributing campaign literature. 

“It will definitely favor established seats of power who are already known to constituents,” Ramadan said.

Still, some in Egypt believe that the protesters’ actions might have forced the government’s hand. 

“Security could not handle the protesters’ attack on the embassy, making the Interior Ministry believe that it needed to revert to old emergency laws,” said Emad Gad, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Public opinion, according to many analysts, has shifted against the revolutionary street movements and protests as a result of the perceived state of instability.

“SCAF has succeeded in convincing the public opinion that the stature of the state is at stake,” Gad said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu thanked Egypt for protecting its security personnel. Even though Sayed says they walked into an empty embassy apartment, some eyewitnesses place embassy personnel on scene during the clashes.

The events may go far in convincing Egypt’s allies that the revolution’s demands might need to take a backseat to other priorities. 

“SCAF has also proven to the outside world that there is a true state of lawlessness in Egypt. Perhaps this would convince the West that stability should be a priority in Egypt,” Gad said. “Maybe even at the expense of democracy.”

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