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Friday, May 20, 2011

Egypt crackdown camouflage

The Israeli embassy in Cairo – the first of its kind and one of only two in the Arab world – sits on the top floor of an unremarkable 15-storey office building near the Nile, a short drive south and across the river from the revolutionary epicentre of Tahrir Square. From the roof, a pole protrudes and makes a right angle high above Ibn Malek Street. Fluttering from the pole is one of the most hated symbols in the Middle East: the Star of David.

Thousands of Egyptians protested below that flag on Sunday afternoon, the 63rd anniversary of Israel's independence. They wanted their post-revolution government to hear demands that Egypt break ties with Israel. Instead, they ran into a harsh post-revolution reality: The unchecked power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The demonstration had proceeded peacefully for hours before a surge toward the building's entrance at around 11pm caused the street to dissolve into a battlefield of burning tires, hurled rocks and swirling tear gas. Central Security and military troops violently dispersed the rally with rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. One man was shot in the head and another in the abdomen.

Two hours into the fight, with the crowd thinned to hundreds of young, rock-throwing men, independent journalist Mohamed Effat arrived half a block away, in a square marked by a famous, 83-year-old statue of a sphinx and a peasant woman removing her veil – "Egypt's Renaissance."

The crowd around Effat shouted chants for a few minutes before a barrage of tear gas landed among them. The group ran several blocks south to escape the gas and paused on a corner near a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Four Seasons hotel. Moments later, soldiers charged from the other direction, firing their guns in the air. Effat and the others scattered into side streets leading toward the Nile, but the army had sealed the entire Corniche.

Soldiers quickly rounded up the group and herded them to the embassy, where hundreds of police and army troops had assembled underneath a bridge. Effat and the protesters were made to lie face down on the pavement with their hands behind their heads. Officers cursed and berated them.

The response by the Egyptian military following the explosion of protests throughout the country – to support and protect, rather than disperse the revolutionaries – suggested a tacit acknowledgment of this fact and provided an opportunity to establish a clean slate. With Mubarak already at the advanced age of 82 and with the possible succession by his highly unpopular son Gamal – along with the continuation of failed domestic and foreign policies – the military elite recognized that it was time to seize the opportunity to create a much-needed change.

As the current Egyptian government stewards the nation in its transition to a more open and free democratic system, it has already begun to make the kind of domestic and foreign policy reforms that are needed to reassert Egyptian leadership. To be sure, it is understandable that the US and Israel are troubled by data like the recent Pew Research poll indicating that 54 percent of Egyptians would like to see the Israel-Egypt peace treaty annulled, and that 79% have a negative view of the US. Yet turning these figures around will require working with a new Egyptian government that is responsive to its people, not shunning or fearing it. Furthermore, privately and publicly, officials in the new government, as well as candidates for the presidency, have indicated their desire to demonstrate Egypt’s leadership and independence, yet still abide by its treaty with Israel and maintain strategic ties with the US.

In fact, in a recent interview with The Washington Post, new Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby stated repeatedly that Cairo “made it very clear from the first day [of the new government] that we want to open a new page with all the countries in the world.” Regarding Egypt-US ties, the foreign minister said he expected them to be “stronger than ever,” and in reference to Egypt-Israel ties he noted that his country “is going to comply with every agreement and abide by every treaty it has entered into.” Even so, Western fears of the new Egyptian foreign policy direction are centered on three key concerns: the new government’s outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Iran.

Alarm bells rang in February when the Egyptian military allowed two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez canal despite objections from Israel and the US.

The contrast with the old regime is striking since Mubarak always made great play of his hostility to Iran and was quick to blame its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, for acting against Egyptian security – even if the evidence seemed dubious.

The view in Cairo is that foreign policy is once again becoming the preserve of the foreign ministry after years in which it was run by the president and his intelligence service under General Omar Suleiman.

Suleiman's successor, Murad Mowafi, who helped seal the Hamas-Fatah deal, also paid an early visit to Damascus, prompting expressions of alarm from the US.

Overall, the hope is that Egypt will regain the regional clout it lost in recent years due to its subservience to the US – though the relationship with Washington remains vitally important, especially for the military.

"Egypt was very weak and very corrupt," said Osama Ghazali Harb, leader of the Democratic Front party. "But when you have a democratic Egypt and a confident government it can return to its proper place."

Anxiety about Egypt's new diplomatic style is overstated, Fahmy suggested: "Everything we are saying vocally now we have said privately

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