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Simmering Unrest Lingers on Cairo’s Streets After Revolution

September 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
An angry mob broke into the Israeli Embassy last week in Cairo,ripping down the neighboring country's flag and ransacking offices. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Margaret Warner, who is reporting from Cairo, about the anti-Israel demonstrations, simmering unrest in Egypt and a hostile confrontation that she and a NewsHour crew faced.

GWEN IFILL: Tensions in post-revolutionary Egypt begin boiling over anew.

Margaret Warner reports from Cairo.

MARGARET WARNER: The pitched battle raged for 13 hours into Saturday morning, as thousands of enraged Egyptians tore down the Israeli Embassy security wall. High above the streets, six Israeli Embassy staffers huddled in the last secure room as rioters penetrated their offices.

Just above their windows, the Israeli flag taken for a trophy and replaced by an Egyptian flag. After a pre-dawn rescue by Egyptian commandos and an Israeli military flight home, all but one of Israel’s delegation here were gone.

But it wasn’t only the neighborhood around the embassy that had taken a beating. So had the cold, but correct peace that had held between Egypt and Israel for 30-some years.

The incident sparked mixed emotions on Cairo’s streets.

WOMAN (through translator): The people outside the embassy are paid thugs of the old regime.

MAN (through translator): We cannot destroy the embassy because, by doing that, we destroy Egypt’s reputation. So we say we’re truly sorry, and we hope relations between us will improve again.

WOMAN (through translator): Does anyone in the world like Israel? I’m pretty sure no one does.

MARGARET WARNER: But there was plenty of support for the assault, too.

MAN (through translator): We support the youth who attacked the embassy. There shouldn’t even be an Israeli Embassy in Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: Since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster seven months ago, long suppressed anti-Israeli sentiment has exploded here. Tensions were inflamed last month when six Egyptian border guards were killed by Israeli military while pursuing terrorist suspects into the Sinai.

But the weekend crowd’s fury, which continued into late Saturday, was also fueled by building rage and frustration over the slow pace of change under the military council that has ruled since February’s peaceful uprising. Last week, even a quiet game of backgammon in a cafe erupted into heated debate.

MAN (through translator): We are in a state of chaos, especially because this has been planned by the military government. It’s all done intentionally.

MAN (through translator): You should go down there with the thousands and join the revolution.

MAN (through translator): There should be no conflict. Everyone should voice their opinions freely.

WOMAN (through translator): Considering this is Egypt, this is all just a little dust that will settle down.

MAN (through translator): Freedom is beautiful, guys.

MARGARET WARNER: On Friday at the revolution’s iconic birthplace, Tahrir Square, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered for yet another protest, this one against military trials for civilians.

At first, it seemed to capture the spirit of those early Tahrir days, bringing together young and old, liberal and conservative, and even families with children. But an undercurrent of discontent ran deep.

Shaimaa Khalil:

SHAIMAA KHALIL, Egypt (through translator): All of our demands, none of them have been responded to. And I feel like things are actually even worse now than they were before the revolution.

MARGARET WARNER: Her finance, electrical engineer Ahmed Hisham, shared her view.

Do you think that the Military Council will listen to this demonstration today?

AHMED HISHAM, Egypt (through translator): The Military Council will not listen to any of our demands, because that’s their track record.

MARGARET WARNER: Their frustration was echoed with menace by one contingent in the crowd, a large group of hard-core soccer fans called the ultras. They came spoiling for a fight with police, with whom they have tangled often.

The chants soon morphed into calls to march on the Interior Ministry — that ministry, along with a police station and the Israeli Embassy, all targets of Friday’s rage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Brown talked with Margaret earlier today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret, hello.

So this outbreak of anti-Israeli sentiment, what’s your sense of how strong it is and what’s unleashed it?

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, ever since Mubarak’s era, in fact, since the Camp David accord and before, there’s been strong anti-Israel feeling here, but people were not allowed to express it publicly. It was an undercurrent in the press, but that was it.

Since Mubarak’s fall, all free expression, almost all, is allowed. And in fact, now you’re hearing a lot of it. There’s a lot of Israel demonstrating. There’s a lot of expression of feeling about what Israel is doing in Gaza, and also a sense that Mubarak had sold Israel short — and also a sense that both Sadat and Mubarak had sold Egypt short in the whole Camp David peace agreement and the way it’s implemented.

This was all exacerbated by the incident that took place in Sinai last month with the killing of the Egyptian soldiers and the fact that the Egyptian military said nothing and did nothing about it. And so this all erupted in part, I would say, and the U.S. diplomats believe, in a way fanned by the Military Council as well, which has allowed anti-Israel sentiment and demonstrations to continue, U.S. diplomats feel, in a way to deflect attention from public unhappiness with their performance.

And, finally, it all erupted, or, as one U.S. diplomat said to me on Friday night, it all tipped over.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this has implications for the Egyptian government’s policy toward Israel going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: I think so, Jeff.

I think whatever new Egyptian government is elected when we finally — when Egypt finally has elections will have no choice, will have pressure from all quarters to do some sort of amendment to at least the agreements that go along with the Camp David accord.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re saying this should be seen in the larger context of a general frustration there at the slow pace of change?


The economy is even worse than before Mubarak fell. Jobs are scarce. Tourism is down. Even more importantly to the Egyptians we talked to is this sense that the revolution itself, a democratic revolution, has not been achieved, that the people in Mubarak’s regime who were guilty of corruption or killing protesters have not been held accountable.

Meanwhile, protesters arrested during the time are being tried in civilian trials. The Mubarak trial — Mubarak was put in trial in part to satisfy these demands or to quell these demands. But what we picked up from Egyptians we talked to here is just incredible frustration, a feeling of impotence, as opposed to the empowerment they felt when we were here in February.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, then what about the security situation there generally now? Does the government appear to have the ability to control things?

MARGARET WARNER: That is the question. Is the security apparatus unwilling or unable to keep order?

You sense a general lawlessness here. I mean, people now are free to drive wrong way around a roundabout. The police seem toothless. One person compared them to Persian cats. The army is trying to exercise more control, but they’re stretched very thin.

There is also a feeling — and it’s a conspiracy theory among many Egyptians — that in a way the military wants some level of disorder, either to justify their continuance in power or because they’re allied with remnants of the old Mubarak regime, remnants of the business community who really don’t want a full revolution, a full Democratic revolution to take place, elections to fully take place and be free and fair and open, because who knows is going to take over then.

I would also add that American diplomats are very concerned that the Egyptian military was unable apparently to protect the Israeli Embassy, that that’s a sacred obligation of the Geneva Conventions, and that it seems odd, to say the least, that this embassy building, which had been so well-fortified and protected before, was allowed over many hours to have a protective wall knocked down chip by chip and for people reportedly to penetrate into the building all the way to the upper floors.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in fact, you and your team got caught up in this yourselves the other day while trying to shoot the scene at the Israeli Embassy, right? Tell us briefly what happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Jeff. That was Saturday, the day after we had driven by and seen all the wreckage. We wanted to get back after our interviews and film it.

We parked across the street directly from where the wall had been, sort of on an entrance to a bridge. And our cameraman, producer and local producer, a young woman, went into that area. She and they, as they moved around, started to be harangued, actually, by a woman and then a crowd yelling at our cameraman that he was an Israeli spy, yelling at her that she was disloyal to Egypt.

As they tried to get away, the mob pursued them, pursued them all the way across the six-lane road and over this abutment or railing. And thanks to a local CNN producer who really rescued our local producer, finally managed to get her in the car. But there were all these other people also clambering in our van. We had no driver. I clambered into the driver’s seat. And with the producer yelling at me to “Drive, drive,” I drove away. And, later, we all hooked up together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we’re very glad everyone is safe.

Margaret Warner reporting for us from Cairo, thanks so much. And take good care.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Jeff.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, Margaret reports on the Muslim Brotherhood, long banned from politics, and now debating its future in Egypt.