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Israeli Embassy: The Egyptian Bastille?

The attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo yesterday was the most troubling sign yet that the Egyptian revolution could morph into something much less constructive and stable than many had hoped.

The baseline analysis about the Egyptian revolution that many foreign analysts have accepted runs something like this.  The effort by President Mubarak to convert Egypt into a dynastic state angered and alarmed virtually everyone in the country.  The military, which did not welcome the prospect of a hereditary presidency, made the crucial decision not to crush protests.  Mubarak resigned, and the military was left in control of a weakened state.  In the future, the military system will continue with a few reforms; there will be a greater degree of public participation in government, but the military will remain the arbiter of politics, playing Islamists and liberals off against each other.

This would make the Egyptian revolution a distinctly limited affair and would bitterly disappoint both liberals and Islamists, but might well provide a stable framework for the next stage of Egyptian development.  The military’s interests and needs would suggest a basic stability in Egypt’s foreign policy.  The military needs foreign aid; the economy needs tourism and foreign investment.  A limited revolution would seek stability at home and abroad.

To fight the natural tendency of the revolution to stagnate, radicals must find a way to stage events that shift public opinion and the balance of forces in their direction.  During the French revolution events like the storming of the Bastille, the September massacres and the trial of Louis XVI moved the country onto a more radical path.  The radicals took actions that divided moderates and aroused public sympathy even as they moved the revolutionary process to new heights.

The storming of the Israeli embassy may work like that in Egypt.  Most Egyptians have never accepted the idea of diplomatic relations with Israel (even many of those who don’t want more wars also don’t want what they see as the shame and surrender of an Israeli embassy on Egyptian territory).  Attacking the embassy sends a thrill through the masses — who are, by the way, increasingly unhappy with the failure of the revolution to deliver tangible economic benefits.

Attacking an embassy is a revolutionary act; it is a declaration that revolutionaries reject the international status quo and the current authorities who tamely agree to live within its limits.  Like the Iranian seizure of the US embassy in 1979 it is an act that forces people to take sides.  Parties and figures who condemn the attack on the Israeli embassy risk losing public support; those who accept it find themselves committed to an increasingly radical course.

If, on the other hand, public opinion recoils from an act that threatens to cut Egypt off from needed foreign support and to devastate the tourist industry (forget Israeli tourists: few western sun worshippers like to visit countries where embassies are torched), the effort to radicalize the Egyptian revolution will lose steam.

Either way, the embassy attack is more than a dramatic event.  This is history on the march; keep your eyes on Egypt for the next few weeks.

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  • K2K

    well stated Mr. Mead. David Goldman posted some charts about the drop in Egypt tourism at PJM.

    So, Egypt’s military just declared martial law, and is implementing much stricter visa procedures.

    The real test may be when they run out of accumulated foreign exchange and can not import enough wheat to feed 40 million Egyptians who depend on subsidized bread. Then we shall see food riots?

    Ironic that low population Libya has enough oil wealth to cover Egypt – which is why I still think Egypt’s military should annex eastern Libya and ignore the Sinai :)

  • pst314

    As a side-note:

    Muslims have a long history of not respecting embassies and ambassadors.

    (Or, for that matter, doctors, rescue workers, humanitarian aid workers, women, children….)

  • MTNolan

    Crane Brinton wrote “The Anatomy of Revolution” in 1938. Its well worth reading. The new governments set up after the revolt are unable to solve the problems that caused the revolution in the first place. And since they do not have the authority to resist those who wish to continue the revolution, the government blames some foreign power and war usually results…. which leads to the fall of the government which is replaced by more radical and ruthless elements.

  • pst314

    MTNolan: Another book to read??? :-)

    One of the “problems” of the internet is finding out about interesting books far faster than one can read them all…which is quite the opposite of what life was like when the news was dominated by the MSM.

  • Kris

    “even many of those who don’t want more wars also don’t want what they see as the shame and surrender of an Israeli embassy on Egyptian territory”

    And can you imagine how humiliated they must feel about the Sinai being under Egyptian control only because Israel agreed to hand it over in exchange for peace? That is why the peace treaty must be abrogated and the Sinai returned to Israel, so that the brave Egyptian people can regain the Sinai through soul and blood. You-know-hu is Great!

  • standfast24

    Good observations about Egypt. Insight sadly lacking from the MSM. Even better reminder for the Obama admin that actions have consequences.
    No doubt that the Dems wish NY 9 was not happening right now – this is an additional reminder that Obama policy has put Israel at risk.

  • MaryWilbur

    Your analysis makes too much sense to ignore. Egypt’s future does not look very bright.

  • Mike T

    The challenge the prospect of shifting public opinion is that the violent jihadists and supporters of never-ending Palestinian terrorism are quite happy to use violence against Egyptian who disagrees with a radicalized Egypt. As with the Reign of Terror, the innocent and moderate will be frog-marched to the Egyptian version of the guillotine and executed.

  • avidus

    Now that the Israeli embassy is torched, it’s ambassador and staff fled where does the crowd turn its focus and anger?

    Should conditions continue to worsen I think it will be quite interesting to see what happens with the US embassy.

    After all, while Israel is the primary enemy we all know who is next in line. Our $2B in annual aid notwithstanding.

    Should our embassy shortly be attacked then I will suggest we have an unmistakable sign that this revolution is clearly going the way of Robespierre.

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