Egypt Downplays Reopening of Israeli Embassy

All announcements on the official reopening of the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week came from Israel, while Egyptian officials were either silent or appeared to downplay the event. Egypt’s stance was likely an effort to avoid a backlash from the generally anti-Israeli public opinion. The announcement, nonetheless, was criticized by staunch opponents of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Muslim Brotherhood group, as well as by Arab nationalists, particularly since it coincided with escalating tensions at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which Egypt has condemned. 

Exactly four years ago, hundreds of angry demonstrators gathered around the Israeli embassy located on the top floor of a Giza building to protest the killing of six Egyptian soldiers along the border. Egypt accused Israeli security forces of the killings that occurred in 2011.  In Hollywood-action style, a young man, later dubbed Egypt’s Spiderman, scaled the fifteen story building, until he reached the roof and removed the Israeli flag that had been flying there since 1980. ‘Spiderman’ became a celebrity in the media, and his act dubbed heroic. A few weeks later, around thirty protesters stormed the embassy, breaking through security barricades, throwing official documents to the crowd below. 

According to an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, who spoke to EgyptSource on condition of anonymity, negotiations have been ongoing between the two sides since then to find a suitable new location for the embassy. These efforts have failed, they said, mainly due to security concerns, and fear over an angered popular reaction. While, the official Israeli statement on the reopening made no mention of the new location of the embassy, Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid, highlighted that it was was now located at the Israeli ambassador’s highly protected residence in Maadi. This, Abu Zeid said, is the same location Israeli diplomats have been operating out of over the past four years.

Israel, on the other hand, had been without an Egyptian ambassador for almost three years, until this past June, when the Foreign Ministry announced the appointment of Hazem Khairat as Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel. Ousted President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi had recalled the envoy in 2012, in protest to Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.  

Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Dore Gold, who flew from Tel Aviv to Cairo on September 9, admitted in an interview with Israeli radio that several suggested locations for the embassy were turned down by Egyptian authorities, but said the two countries should move beyond this issue. “We took a decision to move on, and that it was not useful to delay such move in order to hold further discussions on the location,” Gold said. He described President Sisi’s government as “a partner to achieve stability and prosperity in the Middle East region.”  

Gold attended the opening, along with US Ambassador to Cairo, Stephen Beecroft, while the Egyptian Foreign Ministry sent a junior official—the deputy chief of protocol. During the opening ceremony, Gold was quoted in an official Israeli statement as saying, “Under the leadership of [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and President Sisi we have seen off threats and we are working with Egypt to achieve stability in the region.” He added, “Egypt will always remain the region’s biggest and most significant country.” 

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, however, focused instead on the fact that several Israeli ambassadors and diplomats have continued to work out of the Ambassador’s residence since the evacuation of the embassy in Giza four years ago. “The Israeli Ambassador has always been here and working out of his residence over the past four years when the embassy was closed,” Abu Zeid said. He referred to the event on September 9 as “The official opening of a temporary headquarters for the Israeli embassy at the ambassador’s residence,” and described relations between the two countries as “normal.” 

For Egypt’s Islamist and Arab nationalist opposition, however, relations with Israel should not be “normal” in light of what they describe as Israel’s continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. The recent escalation in clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israel’s army around Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem further added to angry statements against 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 and Arab nationalist, Hamdeen Sabbahi at a press conference. “The closing down of the embassy in 2011 was a reflection of the popular will that is totally against having any relations with Israel. Right now, we believe the Israeli embassy should be closed down, and we should not send a new Egyptian ambassador to Israel,” Sabbahi added in a news conference on Sunday following a meeting of a coalition of opposition parties, the Democratic Trend Alliance. 

Since Mubarak’s removal, relations with Israel have been seen by some as a litmus test for at least one shift in Egyptian politics. In reality, however, almost nothing has changed. The four leaders that followed Mubarak—Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, Morsi, Interim President Adly Mansour, and now Sisi—have preserved the peace treaty with Israel, fully aware that neither regional nor international conditions allow for any backtracking on that level. 

Even Morsi, despite his background as a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, a group preaching anti-Zionism as an integral part of its ideology for decades, sought to use his involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a card in his attempt to prove his credentials to the United States as a responsible leader. Morsi’s secular critics also used a protocol letter he signed and addressed to his Israeli counterpart at the time, Shimon Peres, as evidence that the Brotherhood had no principled position against Israel. They said Morsi’s government was keen, like Mubarak, to maintain relations with Israel to satisfy the United States. 

Yet, saving no effort to embarrass Sisi, the Brotherhood quickly issued a statement condemning the re-opening of the Israeli embassy, claiming he was the one restoring ties with the “Zionist enemy” back to normal. “The closure of the embassies of the Israeli enemy, expelling their representatives from our Arab and Muslim countries, and even imposing an economic siege against the Zionist enemy, is the least that Arab government and regime could do in reaction to (Israel’s) crimes against our holy sites,” the September 15 statement said.   

However, political observers in both Egypt and Israel seem to agree that relations between the two countries have improved on an official level since Sisi took office in June 2014. Israel appreciates Egypt’s effort to crackdown on armed extremists in Sinai that threaten both countries. Relations between Cairo and the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, that controls Gaza, have also sunk to a new low. Hamas is considered the Brotherhood’s branch in Gaza, and the Egyptian army has led an intense operation over the eighteen months to destroy tunnels that link the narrow strip to Sinai, amid allegations of weapons smuggling to militants in Sinai. The Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza, the only outlet for Palestinians to the outside world, is opened only intermittently, with low numbers of people allowed to pass due to deteriorating security conditions in Northern Sinai. Israel’s backing of the Egyptian army’s war on terror is confirmed by its decision to allow an increased number of Egyptian forces in Sinai, exceeding the limits stipulated by the Camp David agreement, as well allowing the entry of other sorts of heavy weapons. 

Egypt has also been negotiating importing natural gas from Israel to meet domestic demand. Even though Egypt had announced recently a major gas discovery in the Mediterranean Sea in cooperation with an Italian company, Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail, who was designated this week as the country’s new prime minister, was quick to confirm that this did not mean an end to talks with Israel over gas imports.  He said that it will take at least three years until the new discovery starts production, and that Egypt remains in need for gas imports. However, no final deal has been signed yet to start imports from Israel’s offshore Leviathan field to Egypt.

Egypt’s attempt to minimize the significance of the re-opening of the Israeli embassy confirms that Sisi is trying to be even more careful than Mubarak in conducting relations with Israel, mainly to avoid any negative popular backlash at a time he’s facing many domestic challenges. Despite the clear upgrade in security and economic cooperation between the two countries, Sisi has yet to meet any senior Israeli officials as president, unlike Mubarak, and appears to prefer keeping ties between the two countries active behind closed doors.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the former official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Protesters pull down part of a concrete wall built in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo September 9, 2011 (Reuters/Amr Dalsh)