Last month, the men who scaled the building housing the Israeli embassy in Cairo become national heroes in Egypt for tearing down the blue and white flag that flew over the site. Today, another mob stormed the site, tearing down the security wall erected to protect the diplomatic enclave. These demonstrations are indications not only of the hatred for any symbol of Israel in Egypt but the way in which the military government is allowing them to grow in scale.
While this may be defended as the regime merely allowing the mobs to vent their spleens in a harmless manner, the escalation of the violence may not be so easy to control.
For decades, the Mubarak regime kept the peace with Israel but allowed the Egyptian media to broadcast blatantly anti-Semitic propaganda in order to give Islamists and other critics of the government an outlet to vent their frustration. That created an unhealthy disconnect between policy and public opinion that took a cold peace and transformed it into one verging on open hostility after the fall of the dictator.
Egypt’s military knows very well the price of abandoning the peace with Israel would be disastrous. It would not only put their untested forces in harm’s way, but also take away the government’s pipeline of U.S. aid that the military prizes. They may believe allowing Islamist and nationalist agitators to besiege Israel’s embassy gives these haters a meaningless victory without doing any real damage to the country’s strategic needs. But as Mubarak learned to his cost, Cairo mobs sometimes take on a life of their own. Fueled by the hate that is part of the country’s popular culture, the impulse to demonize Israel and Jews can’t be quarantined. If left unchallenged, it will only grow and lead to worse things than a torn flag or a demolished security wall.
Egypt’s leaders need to counteract this trend before it gets even further out of control. And they need to be told bluntly by Washington that if they don’t, the flow of baksheesh into their coffers will soon end.