Many observers were quick to draw an analogy between the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo three weeks ago and the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. After all, a few months after an uprising initially believed to be liberal and democratic, revolutionaries storm a Western embassy. Accordingly, some observers drew the conclusion that Islamists must have been behind the attack on the Cairo embassy just as Islamists had been a driving force in the Tehran takeover 32 years ago. Others saw the Egyptian army’s lackadaisical response as a way to provoke chaos, which would in turn allow the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to pass new measures curtailing democracy and free expression. And, of course, some saw the attack on the embassy as the logical result of Israeli policies. Local papers produced all sorts of conspiracy theories: Al-Wafd claimed that Israeli security was shooting at the demonstrators, and Al-Dustour contended that Gamal Mubarak plotted and funded the entire scene.
The truth is somewhat different.
While Islamists are decidedly anti-Israel and have a long and thriving history of anti-Semitism, they did not take part in any of the day’s demonstrations. Rather, the attack was carried out by some of the same groups typically labeled “democrats” or even “liberals.” In the wake of the attack, 21 of these groups proudly announced their responsibility, asserting, moreover, that they would not accept the return of the Israeli ambassador.
Islamists pose a real threat to freedom, but they are hardly the only ones. Populist demagogues are no less dangerous, neither is the odd mixture of demonstrators made up of a mix of Trotskyites, anarchists, and Nasserites. These groups have no real commitment to freedom, and they are obviously no less anti-Semitic than the Islamists. The fact is that anti-Semitism is the daily bread of Egyptian politics.
Perhaps nothing captures this grim image better than the phrase, “One Nation for New Holocaust,” which was displayed on a huge banner held by thousands of hardcore soccer fans, known as the Ultras, as seen in a YouTube video bearing the same title. Despite being completely apolitical, the Ultras were at the forefront of the embassy attack, perhaps in retaliation for police violence in a recent game, flying Egyptian flags with aswastika in place of the Eagle of Saladin. Referring to Egypt’s agreement to sell natural gas to Israel, the demonstrators chanted, “We will export no gas, we shall burn you with gasoline” (it rhymes in Arabic).
Thankfully, the attack did not end with the same result as the one in 1979, and none of the embassy staff was hurt or taken hostage, but it points out to a larger problem, one that is becoming hard to ignore.
The attack on the Israeli embassy is yet another manifestation of the decline of U.S. power and influence in the region. Perhaps Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sincere in thanking President Obama for using “all the means and influence of the U.S.” to bring the situation at the embassy to a peaceful conclusion. Still, it is not clear what it means if it takes the U.S. secretary of defense two hours to reach his Egyptian counterpart on the phone.
The U.S. has helped bring down the regional order it has so tirelessly built for years and has not provided an alternative order. The result has been a worsening of relations between pillars of U.S. policy and a volatile situation that might well lead to regional conflict. The fact that regional leaders seem to have no appetite for war is not a consolation. Neither did Nasser in 1967, yet he still found himself driven to war by inter-Arab dynamics. While the names of the players have changed, with the Qatari Al Jazeera replacing Cairo Radio, those dynamics are still in play today. Politics in the region continues to be shaped by an Arab Cold War that is perhaps more dangerous with the proliferation of non-state actors such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda.