I heard two different theories today about what happened last night at the Ministry of Interior and the Israeli Embassy.
1) The move on the embassy was incited by SCAF provocateurs to make the Tahrir protesters cross the line from non-violence into rioting, not only depriving them of their moral high ground and international legitimacy, but also justifying a crackdown and full reimposition of emergency law;
2) The move on the embassy was a clever and useful gambit for the Tahrir protesters; given the widespread popularity in Egypt of statements and actions seen as effectively standing up to Israel, they rightly calculated that forcing SCAF to shoot at Egyptians in defense of Israeli interests could be expected to deprive the military council of legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians.
I think both these explanations, like most conspiracy theories, give everyone way too much credit for strategic thinking and organization.
Both build on elements of truth. Feeding into Theory #2, the mother of a man allegedly killed by troops defending the wall around the Israeli embassy has been quoted in the press as saying: “To hell with Israel. Why is the army protecting Israel and killing my children?” This is indeed resonant stuff, viscerally more powerful than the protesters’ other Friday talking points (about military trials for civilians, judiciary independence, electoral redistricting), which are all relatively abstruse and remain in danger of being eclipsed by everyone’s desire for stability and “for the country to get back to work again.” I have actually heard people blame the would-be revolutionaries themselves for the fact that nothing has changed since the revolution, as follows: “Change? Nothing has changed! All I want is for the country to move forward. I want to make a living, to feed my children and educate them with dignity. But how can I work when they keep shutting down the city and tying up traffic with their pointless demonstrations?” A stand against Israel would no doubt help the revolution regain some patriotism points with people like this.
Meanwhile, going along with Theory #1, there are reports that the embassy rioters will now be tried in emergency courts (not just the already objectionable military courts) and that P.M. Essam Sharaf and his government may resign, further consolidating SCAF’s naked rule.
BUT my impression is that this was not a premeditated move or even a moment of strategic opportunism on anyone’s part. As I said yesterday, I think there was a some confusion in Tahrir, some nostalgia for the revolutionary days when everyone could rally around a single slogan. Also a lot of energy, boosted by the Ahly ultras and the soccer-stadium atmosphere they brought to the demonstration. So at the end of the night that energy found an outlet in chanting the old lines, scratching the old itch. (Even ten years ago, while Israel was reoccupying the West Bank during the Second Intifada, there were protests in Cairo with people shouting the same chant that was heard last night (in Arabic it rhymes): “أول مطلب للجماهير قفل السفارة وطرد سفير” – “The first demand of the masses/ Is to close the embassy and expel the ambassador.”) Not that the grievances against Israeli cross-border incursions and so forth aren’t legitimate, but was this really the right moment and the right way, people?
Last note of the night: the September 11 anniversary is a total non-issue here. Only way to hear anything about it is to turn on Al-Jazeera English or CNN or BBC.