My Tahrir experience last night
I spent yesterday evening in Tahrir square, which meant that I missed the attack on the Israeli embassy that has dominated the news from Cairo. Colleagues on their way back from the pyramids got caught in a pitched battle betweeen rock-throwers and riot police in front of the Saudi embassy, down the street from the Israelis. They got a good scare, but were uninjured.
My own contact with the would-be rock throwers was limited to their recruiting marches through Tahrir, where most people were ignoring the chants of “to the embassy!” sung out by fist-pumping small groups of young men. But they apparently managed to assemble thousands at the embassy, some of whom were surely what would be termed football hooligans in Europe. The arrival of Ahli and Zamalek (the two Cairo teams) fans in Tahrir was greeted earlier in the evening with a roar of approval.
The predominant themes in Tahrir however had little to do with Israel. A big sign denounced the media cronies of the Mubarak regime, all still in their jobs. Another called for justice for those who had resisted the revolution, noting that they are not even arrested but pro-democracy demonstrators are still being processed in military courts.
Anti-military sentiment tinged the speeches, which called on Egyptians to be like one hand, a civilian one. The crowd wanted the army to fulfill its promise to turn over power to civilians. “Liberty, social justice and bread” was a popular chant–it sounds a lot more rhythmic in Arabic. The atmosphere is a bit like Hyde Park: anyone with a microphone stands on a soap box, quickly assembles a crowd and holds forth, to the amusement and banter of the listeners, who denounce him for hogging the mic. The Communist Party was handing out leaflets that denounced human rights violations by the military and called for liberation from everything, including bachelorhood.
Women were less than a quarter of Tahrir’s population last night, many but not all covering at least their hair. “The one who governs shoud be bigger in wisdom than beard” was a popular, I am told Koranic, quotation. But neither religion nor secularism was on serious display so far I could tell.
If there was any link between the general sentiment of the crowd and the violence at the Israeli embassy, it may lay in the idea of humiliation. “Keep your head up, you are Egyptian” was a strong current in the speeches. Egyptians regard the Israeli killing of several Egyptian policemen in Sinai in the aftermath of a terrorist attack inside Israel as humiliating and want a more fulsome apology for it. As Rob Satloff suggests, “a more generous statement on the unfortunate killing of Egyptian security forces might have been
both appropriate and helpful.”
That would not likely have carried much weight with last night’s rioters, who destroyed a security wall built recently in front of the embassy and injured a lot of people. But it is only by making the “cold peace” between Israel and Egypt a warmer one that politicians on both sides of the Sinai border will be able to convince their electorates that the Camp David accords are worth defending.
This is the real meaning of the Arab spring to Israel, as Satloff also notes: peace is no longer an issue that can be settled president to prime minister, or even government to government. It will have to be society to society, which is much harder, especially if your ambassador has fled from Cairo and the Egyptian one has been withdrawn from Tel Aviv as well.