Mohamed Abdel Razek Ali has been standing outside the Israeli Embassy for the past week. His clothes are torn, his hands are filthy, and he holds a couple of signs, too detailed and busy to make immediate sense to any passers-by.
The message he is trying to get across, however, is all too clear: “Down with Field Marshal Tantawi!” Abdel Razek Ali demands as he takes his one-man protest off the sidewalk and into traffic.
Like many Egyptians, Abdel Razek Ali wants to redefine Egypt’s foreign policy regarding Israel. With former President Hosni Mubarak being largely perceived as an Israeli stooge – prior to his ouster, protester chants regularly accused him of being an Israeli “agent” and “co-conspirator" – one of the main points of debate in post-uprising Egypt revolves around what the country’s relationship with Israel should become – or whether there should be one in the first place. An associated populist discourse to the question that prevailed in Egyptian politics for years has unfolded in people’s thoughts.
“There should be no relationship with Israel, no communication, and no peace treaty,” 20-year-old Abdel Razek Ali asserts with a thick accent. The young protester hails from the nearby governorate of Fayoum.
The issue came to the forefront on 18 August after Israeli soldiers killed five Egyptian security officers during a botched skirmish with armed militants in the Sinai peninsula. The incident followed an earlier attack by militants that killed eight and allegedly occurred after the militants crossed to Israel from Sinai. The killing of Egyptian soldiers provoked a torrent of national outrage and led to a massive four-day sit-in outside the Israeli Embassy, with protesters demanding the ambassador’s expulsion.
“Mubarak sold our dignity to the Israelis and because of him, thousands died,” Abdel Razek Ali exclaims. “Now he’s gone, but Egyptians are still being killed. This has to stop now. I direct this message to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi: Listen to our demands before we turn on you.”
“The revolution has happened, so why are we waiting?” the young man asks, baffled. “We can destroy [Israel]. Look at how much we outnumber them by.”
Despite appearances, Abdel Razek Ali was not alone. While the majority of the protesters who took to the embassy after the border incident have since returned home – their demands for immediate justice somewhat sated by the sudden and surreal appearance of Flagman, the man who climbed the building of the Israeli Embassy to remove its flag – a small crowd still remained, consisting mainly of rowdy children clambering over abandoned security posts and throwing rocks at assorted vendors, as well as two old men sitting under a tree.
“The Israelis want to devour us,” claims 72-year-old Mohamed Abdel Meguid. “They want to take control of our region, from the Nile to the Euphrates, and they will stop at nothing until they succeed.”
“Don’t think that I am making this up,” warns Abdel Meguid. “This has been Israel’s plan for many years.”
To Abdel Meguid’s side, Sayed Abdel Wahab interjects, “They want to destroy us, so why should we wait for them to do so?” he says as he rolls around a few of the dates resting in the lap of his galabeya.
“We need to cancel this so-called peace treaty, which is meaningless and shameful. We need to start defending ourselves and our country. Otherwise, what has the revolution achieved?”
Popular calls demand scrapping the Camp David Peace Accord because the agreement stipulates the demilitarization of Sinai, a weakening point for Egypt.
“What do you think the Israeli reaction would have been like if Egyptian soldiers had accidentally killed five Israeli border officers?” Abdel Wahab asks.
Albeit a commonly popular premise, the idea of going to war with Israel is not uncontested among Egyptians.
“Yes, I think we should go to war with Israel,” says auto mechanic Ahmed Afify. “But now would not be the right time. Our country is weak, and we have plenty of problems left to us by the previous regime, and plenty of problems caused by the revolution. Now would not be a good time to fight.”
“Although,” he adds after a moment’s pause, “I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a ‘good time’ to go to war.”
Engineer Bassam Fayek, who for three days straight stood outside the Israeli Embassy demanding justice, believes that “nobody wants to go to war, and the people who do either don’t understand what that means, or have been brainwashed into seeing it as the only honorable solution.”
“There does, however, need to be some changes,” the 32-year-old says, suggesting that the previous regime’s priorities, which in some ways placed a foreign policy with Israel ahead of its own people’s interests, should now be reconsidered. “I’m not saying this out of a sense of bonding with or supporting the other Arab nations in their refusal to deal with Israel – we all know there is no such thing as Arab unity – but I do believe that we should end our relationship with Israel, or at least drastically change it, in order to make it more in sync with the honor of the revolution.”
“Should we scrap the peace treaty and cut off all ties with Israel?” Fayek asks. “Probably. I don’t see a reason not to, and it would definitely make a lot of people happy.”
Omneya Ragab, a member of the moderately leftist youth group Rabitat al-Shabab al-Taqadommy, believes that the peace treaty needs to be reconsidered, if only because “Israel has a history of violating it, with no consequence whatsoever. Also, we [Egypt] made major concessions in the treaty that should now be amended.”
However, Ragab is quick to point out that she “does not support declaring war. That would not be in either side’s interest.”
“This is not the first time something like this has happened,” Ragab claims. “Incidents such as [the border killings] happened almost consistently during Mubarak’s era. This time, however, the official reaction should have been stronger, since we are in a new political era.”
Despite being a sheikh, Abdel Rahman Fathy refuses to consider things from a religious point of view, deciding instead to focus on concrete facts.
“Do Egyptians want to go to war? I don’t think so. And if they do, then we should be defeated so that we learn that war should never be considered as a solution, or a noble thing. War is not noble and it is not something you wage by choice. It is only ever the time for war when there are absolutely no other viable options," Fathy says.
Meanwhile, Ragab sees a symbolic victory in Flagman incident.
“If someone had climbed up the embassy building and taken down the Israeli flag and replaced it with an Egyptian one during Mubarak’s reign, then they would have been labeled a ‘thug’ and made to suffer the consequences,” she claims.
But she also points to the idea of the Flagman incident being an inconsequential act and accordingly, it feeds more into the prevailing populism.
“It’s just a case of emotional manipulation, nothing more than unnecessary distraction over a trivial act," she says.
“What Egyptians want is simple: dignity and respect,” Fathy says. “How can war be the answer? There is no dignity in war.”