Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Public versus private protocol

Keen not to anger domestic public opinion Egyptian officials played down the significance of the official reopening of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Khaled Dawoud reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Most announcements of last week’s official reopening of the Israeli embassy in Cairo came from Israel. Egyptian officials were silent on the matter, intent to play down the event in an effort to avoid any domestic backlash.
The move was criticised by opponents of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists. Both were incensed that it coincided with escalating tensions at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which Muslims consider one of their holiest sites.
Four years ago angry demonstrators stormed the Israeli embassy, located on the top floor of an apartment building in Giza, to protest the killing of six Egyptian soldiers on the Eastern border by Israeli fire. One young man, dubbed Spiderman in the media, climbed the 15-storey building balcony by balcony until he reached the roof where he removed the Israeli flag that had been flying there since 1980. Spiderman became an overnight celebrity and his actions were widely interpreted as a reflection of the will of the Egyptian people after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in a popular revolt.
While the Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, flew from Tel Aviv to attend the opening on 9 September, where he was joined by US Ambassador to Cairo Stephen Beecroft, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry sent a junior official, the deputy chief of protocol.
The official Israeli statement on the reopening made no mention of the location of the embassy. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid, however, made it clear the embassy is based in the Israeli ambassador’s residence in Maadi, a heavily secured villa where Israeli diplomats have been based for the last four years.
According to an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, negotiations to find a suitable new location for the Israeli embassy have been ongoing for four years. They failed, he said, because of security concerns and fear of provoking an angry popular reaction.
Gold, who admitted in an interview with Israeli radio that several locations suggested for the Israeli embassy have been turned down by the Egyptian authorities, argued the two countries should move beyond the issue.
“We took a decision to move on, and that it was not useful to delay such a move in order to hold further discussions on the location,” Gold said. He described President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s government as “a partner to achieve stability and prosperity in the Middle East region”. 
During the opening ceremony Gold was quoted in an official Israeli statement as saying that “under the leadership of (Israeli) Prime Minister (Binyamin) Netanyahu and President Al-Sisi we have seen off threats and we are working with Egypt to achieve stability in the region.”
He added that “Egypt will always remain the region’s biggest and most significant country.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abu Zeid cautioned that the local media should not make a big deal out of the official reopening of the Israeli embassy, noting that Israeli diplomats had continued to work out of the ambassador’s residence in Maadi since the evacuation of the embassy in Giza four years ago.
“The Israeli ambassador has always been here, working out of his residence when the embassy was closed,” said Abu Zeid. What happened on 9 September was simply “the official opening of a temporary headquarters for the Israeli embassy at the ambassador’s residence”. Abu Zeid went on to describe relations between Egypt and Israel as “normal”.
Yet for Egypt’s Islamist and Arab nationalist opposition relations with Israel should be anything but “normal” given Israel’s continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.
The recent escalation in clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army around Al-Aqsa Mosque further fuelled the flurry of angry statements opposing the reopening of the Israeli embassy.
“Even before the Israeli aggression on Al-Aqsa Mosque we did not think the Israeli embassy in Cairo should have been reopened,” said former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.
“The closing down of the embassy in 2011 was a reflection of popular will. Right now we believe the Israeli embassy should be closed down, and we should not send a new Egyptian ambassador to Israel,” Sabahi told a news conference on Sunday held following a meeting of the Democratic Trend Alliance, an umbrella grouping of opposition parties.
In June the Foreign Ministry announced the appointment of Hazem Khairat as Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, filling a post that had been vacant since Mohamed Morsi recalled Egypt’s ambassador in 2012 to protest Israel’s war against Gaza.
Since Mubarak’s removal relations with Israel have been viewed as a litmus test of how much has changed in Egyptian politics. And that, argue many observers, is next to nothing, given the way the four Egyptian leaders who succeeded Mubarak — Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, Morsi, interim president Adli Mansour, and Al-Sisi — have tiptoed around the peace treaty with Israel, fully aware that neither regional nor international conditions allowed for any backtracking.
Morsi attempted to use the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a way to establish his credentials in Washington as a responsible leader, while Morsi’s secular critics tried to use a protocol letter Morsi signed and addressed to his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, thanking him for the congratulations he sent after Morsi was elected, as evidence that the Brotherhood, whatever its anti-Zionist rhetoric, had no principled position on Israel and was as keen as Mubarak to maintain relations to satisfy the United States.
Political observers in both Egypt and Israel agree relations have improved on the official level since Al-Sisi took office in June 2014. Israel appreciates Egyptian efforts to crackdown on the armed extremists that threaten both countries in Sinai. Relations between Cairo and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, have also collapsed. Over the last 18 months the Egyptian army has been destroying tunnels that link the narrow strip to Sinai. The Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza, the only non-Israeli controlled outlet for Palestinians, is seldom opened, and even when it is limited numbers are allowed to cross because of the deteriorating security conditions in northern Sinai.
Israel has agreed to an increase in the number of Egyptian forces in Sinai above the limits set by the Camp David agreement, and to deployment of heavy weapons, a tacit display of its support for the military campaign against extremists based in the peninsula.

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