According to today’s New York Times, the current idol of Egypt is a man who scaled the walls of a multi-story building in order to get to the roof of Israel’s embassy in Cairo where he then hauled down the Israeli flag and replaced it with an Egyptian one. The man, now known as “flagman,” received a job and an apartment–both scarce commodities in Egypt–as a reward for his exploit.
The Times concentrates on the fact that, as is always the case with such tales, there is a dispute about who the real flagman might be, with another challenger stepping forward to claim at least part of the credit. But we needn’t concern ourselves with which of the two deserves the free stuff. Rather, it is far more important to ponder why it is that Egyptians are so convulsed with hatred for Israel they would make a hero out of either.
After all, the whole point of the demonstration at the embassy was to protest what the Times tactfully refers to as a “series of cross-border killings on the Sinai frontier.” That was a nice way to say Egypt allowed its territory to be used as a launching pad for Palestinian terrorists to attack in Israel and kill eight persons. When Israeli forces were pursuing some of the escaping felons, they fled back over the border, and three Egyptian security men were killed by Israeli fire aimed at the terrorists. Israel apologized for those deaths, but we’re still waiting for Egypt to express regret for its responsibility for the affair.
The willingness of the Egyptian public to treat the incident as Israeli aggression without taking into account it occurred because their country turned a blind eye to Palestinian terrorists betrays the animus against the Jewish state that runs deep in Egyptian culture. Some will rationalize this as merely a function of sympathy for the Palestinians, who are portrayed in the Arab press as helpless victims suffering at the hands of evil Israeli oppressors. But that sympathy has always been tempered by both prejudice against Palestinians as well as resentment at them for being manipulated into several wars that were disasters for Egypt.
The anger at Israel in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world has always been about something much more fundamental: anti-Semitism and the belief the Jewish state’s very existence is a humiliation for Arabs and Muslims. The Israeli embassy in Cairo and the flag with the Star of David that flies above it has become a focus of that hatred, so it is no surprise the flag incident, which might otherwise be considered a foolish prank, has now been elevated into an expression of national pride.
For decades, the Mubarak regime allowed anti-Semitic hate to flow freely in the Egyptian media and popular culture in order to give critics of the government an outlet for their spleen. In the post-Mubarak era, the obsession with Israel is, if anything, becoming more important. The flagmen are just the tip of the iceberg of Arab hatred for Israel. Though the Egyptian military is loathe to give up the $2 billion they still get in American aid in exchange for keeping the peace with Israel, the virulent hatred for the Jewish state that is at the heart of the tensions between the countries is a variable that must not be discounted when assessing the future of the Middle East.