Sunday, September 11, 2011

Once More Into the Swamp: The Attack on Israel’s Embassy Opens A New Era in Middle East History

The following article was written for the Crethi Plethi blog in the Netherlands. If reprinting or linking please give Crethi Plethi credit. The article can be accessed here:

By Barry Rubin

The attack and looting of Israel’s embassy in Cairo is an event as significant as the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran, in 1979, and the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

The first event signaled a change in Iran and the rise of a powerful revolutionary Islamist movement. The results have included an increase in anti-Western politics in the Middle East, an upsurge in terrorism, and three wars in the Persian Gulf (Iran-Iraq, 1980-1988; Kuwait, 1990-1991, Iraq, 2003).

The second event brought the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; a major upsurge in terrorism, and big advances for revolutionary Islamism despite the later defeats suffered by al-Qaida itself.

And now the third event, which many will see as far less significant. But it isn’t. While ground center for the first two were, respectively, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, this one strikes at the core area of the Arabic-speaking world and the Arab-Israeli issue.

What the attack on the Israeli embassy signifies can be divided into Egyptian and wider implications. Concerning Egypt, the era of Egypt-Israeli peace is over. Egypt will be a hostile country to Israel and the government will make no attempt to stop hysterical incitement and hatred. It is more likely to stop cross-border attacks from Egyptian territory and try to avoid direct war.

Yet even those limits are misleading. Mubarak’s Egypt was aligned—though not allied—with Israel and the United States. Post-Mubarak Egypt is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, even if that group isn’t in power, and Hamas. It will not cooperate with the United States. The cornerstone, the lynch-pin, the most powerful country, of the Arab world has gone over to the other side.

Within Egypt itself, the riot and the military junta’s permissiveness toward it is a big step toward ending any hope of democracy or moderation within Egypt itself. Recognizing the power of the mob and the potency of its ideas—kill the Jews, wipe Israel off the map, down with America, war, jihad, total victory, a million martyrs!—the military junta stood aside and let the crowd rampage. Egypt’s international image and legitimate commitments are of no consequence in the face of this tidal wave of insane, suicidal hatred.

Not far from the Israeli embassy was a famous statue called Egypt’s Awakening. Anti-Israel demonstrators broke off pieces of the statue in their attack on the embassy. In other words, Egypt’s new “awakening” (the February revolution) is being reinterpreted as the same old determination to destroy Israel. At the same time, that choice is destroying any chance for a real Egyptian awakening, that involving democracy, pragmatism, and material progress.

A young Egyptian, describing himself as a “liberal reformer” cheered the use of the statue for this purpose saying that he was glad it had served the cause. Asked by an American whether he feared the revolutionary Islamists taking advantage of this kind of activity, he responded—by twitter, of course—that Israel is his enemy and that the Muslim Brotherhood is “a piece of cake.”

By using such an American slang phrase he showed his cosmopolitan background, with which such sentiments are obviously consistent in Egypt. “Piece of cake” means something dealt with easily. He is saying that the moderates can easily deal with the Brotherhood. That is, of course, ridiculous. The American responded that the moderates are the “piece of cake” and they will end up in the Brotherhood’s stomach.

The April 6 Youth Movement, the left-oriented group that began the revolution back in January, made a surprising statement criticizing the attack. It is especially surprising since that group has a long history of anti-Israel activity and has in the past been in partnership with the Brotherhood. A couple of months ago, at a time when there was no fighting in the Gaza Strip and Israeli sanctions there had already been minimized, one Movement leader said that Israel was committing “genocide’ in the Gaza Strip and that Egypt must act. Be careful what you wish for because you might get it.

Now the Movement’s leaders, if not the tweeter mentioned above, are getting scared. They see that the revolution is no longer in their hands and is headed toward a new dictatorship likely to repeat all of the mistakes of Egypt’s past.

Another example of this awakening about the nature of Egypt’s awakening. A CNN television crew covering the attack on the embassy was attacked by some of the demonstrators, who screamed that they were American spies.  The CNN people finally escaped.

Afterward, the crew’s producer said that the attackers had acted like “animals.” If she had been a Westerner she would have immediately been fired and no one would ever have employed her again. But since she was herself Egyptian such an expression was considered acceptable. One can well imagine how it feels for an Egyptian to see her neighbors turned once again into a raging mob out for blood and indifferent to the consequences.  

Like Iranians in the 1970s, and like Lebanese, Turks, Libyans, and perhaps soon Tunisians, she is witnessing her country run eagerly back into the darkness of a new, even worse situation than the one that had driven them to dream of a stainless brave new world.  

The broader, foreign policy, implications of this lynch mob are equally enormous.

First, Egypt will not try to restrain Hamas from attacking Israel. If Hamas does attack Israel from the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian government will not inhibit the flow of arms, money, and volunteer fighters to join the war against Israel from Hamas-held territory. Under such circumstances, Egypt could conceivably be dragged into a war with Israel.       

Second, Egypt will seek out a new alliance system. The most likely candidates for its friendship are Hamas, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhoods in Jordan and Syria. It will oppose Iran’s Shia-led Islamist bloc and the two sides could clash in various places. 

Third, whatever minimal hope remained for any Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian peace process is now dead, killed not only by the defection of Egypt but also by that of Turkey, by the Palestinian decision to pursue unilateral independence, and by the self-chosen weakening of the United States.

Every gain made in the Middle East since the 1970s is now melting away. What makes this all worse is that the disaster is being cheered in much of the West as something good, or at least has been up until now.  

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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