CAIRO — Egypt faces rising poverty, a shaky economy and an uncertain road to democracy.
But it is Israel, and Egypt’s relationship with it, that fuels more passion here. That was demonstrated over the weekend when a listless gathering of liberal groups in Tahrir Square turned into a violent clash at the Israeli Embassy that forced the ambassador and his staff to flee the country.
Many of the embassy protesters said their dignity depended on having a say on issues both domestic and international.
But a growing chorus of critics is questioning whether the focus on Israel is diverting energy from issues that more directly affect the daily lives of Egyptians. Some say the military council running the country is content to have Egyptians’ attention focused elsewhere to distract citizens from posing hard questions that might otherwise be directed at the council.
Israel should not get “more credit than it’s worth,” said Wael Abbas, an activist and blogger. “We should concentrate on building a state first.”
Relations between Egypt and Israel were already strained following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, and they worsened sharply after a mid-August incident in which five Egyptian border guards were killed in crossfire as Israeli troops pursued militants who had crossed from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and carried out a deadly attack near the Israeli town of Eilat.
Egypt announced it would recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, then backed down. Protests in front of the Israeli Embassy swelled, and they peaked Saturday morning when Israeli officials had to be rescued by an Egyptian commando squad after demonstrators broke into the embassy and thousands more tore down a wall surrounding the building.
On Sunday, the embassy remained closed, with light security in the surrounding area. Only a few onlookers paused to examine the damage of the previous day’s clashes. Most political groups and many of the activists involved in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in January and February condemned the embassy attack, as did the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The incident underlined the deeply altered relationship between Israel and Egypt, in which popular anti-Israeli sentiment, fueled by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, has threatened to undermine relations cemented in a 1979 peace treaty and maintained by Mubarak.
Some activists and officials said the military’s tolerant attitude toward the initial embassy protests was strategic, not coincidental.
“They’ve allowed this and, to a certain extent, fanned it,” said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a host country’s government. “They’ve let this get out of control to distract people from criticizing them.”
Indeed, what was supposed to be a show of strength in Tahrir Square to push the military council toward democracy ended with a step back, after the council announced that it would revive a disliked emergency law whose suspension was a key demand of the protests that toppled Mubarak.
The Tahrir protest itself was a physical testament to the domestic disagreements that divide Egypt, as small groups clustered in different parts of the plaza, each demanding action on a separate issue.
They only joined together hours later as thousands gathered to march from Tahrir — the center of the country’s political uprising — over a Nile River bridge to the Israeli Embassy.
“Egyptians might disagree about internal issues like elections and the constitution, but these protests and incidents with Israel, they’ve unified Egyptians,” said Refaat al-Sayyid, a political analyst.
Politicians have talked about other issues in the somewhat chaotic election campaign, which doesn’t have a fixed timeline — one of the demands of Friday’s protest in Tahrir. But condemning Israel has proved an easy way to win support, and some of the protesters in front of the embassy over the weekend said that focusing on Israel was the best way to revive flagging enthusiasm for the revolution.
Analysts said the protests were unlikely to create fundamental diplomatic changes for now. The military council continues to see civil relations with Israel as a strategic advantage, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he wants to return his diplomats to Cairo as soon as possible.
Hassieb is a special correspondent.