Saturday, September 10, 2011

Israel asks U.S. to help protect embassy in Cairo after protesters attack building

By Michael Birnbaum and Ingy Hassieb, Friday, September 9, 8:58 AM
The Washington Post

CAIRO — Israel sought U.S. protection for its embassy here early Saturday, hours after thousands of Egyptian protesters besieged the building, with several managing to gain entry and fling Hebrew-language documents from a balcony.

Protesters knocked down a 12-foot concrete wall that had been built last week to protect the embassy, which is near the top floor of a 21-story residential building in the upscale Dokki neighborhood. At least two protesters scaled the front of the building to pull down the Israeli flag, hanging from the 20th floor. It was the second time in recent weeks that demonstrators had removed the flag.

The crowd burned Israeli flags and threw rocks at security forces as protesters denounced the deaths of five Egyptian border guards last month. The five were killed as Israeli troops pursued militants who they said had crossed into Egypt from Gaza to attack the Israeli resort town of Eilat.

Late Friday, protesters appeared to have reached the embassy’s foyer, throwing documents from a balcony, according to an Israeli official quoted by the Reuters news agency. It was not clear whether the documents were sensitive. Egyptian security forces used tear gas and sent a string of armored personnel carriers to try to clear away the protesters.

An Israeli official in Jerusalem confirmed that the embassy had been broken into.

President Obama spoke by telephone to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express “great concern” about the embassy situation and called on the Egyptian government to protect the building.

Early Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked U.S. officials for assistance in protecting the Cairo embassy, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, Israel’s ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, his family and other embassy staff were waiting at Cairo’s airport for a military plane to evacuate them, the Associated Press reported airport officials as saying.

Anger toward Israel has united Egyptian protesters like nothing else. Thousands returned to Tahrir Square on Friday calling for a faster transition to civilian rule, in the largest demonstration since activists canceled a sit-in at the beginning of August. But the gathering in Tahrir — in which disparate groups clustered separately, each pressing their own issues — lacked the energy of the evening confrontation at the embassy, which developed after protesters broke away from the square and marched the two miles to the mission.

Friday’s gathering, which organizers called “Correcting the Path,” was intended to pressure Egypt’s military rulers to provide a timeline for ceding power to civilian control, after months in which elections have been proposed and then postponed.

Parliamentary elections are set for November, with a presidential election to follow, but no dates have been set for either vote.

Protesters also called for an end to military trials of civilians, which have continued unabated since longtime president and former military general Hosni Mubarak was ousted Feb. 11, after weeks of massive but peaceful civilian protests.

“Mubarak’s men are still in control, and we can’t do anything about it,” said Mohammed Saad, 24, a student at al-Azhar University, Egypt’s preeminent Islamic school. “The poor are still poor, and the children of the rich are the only ones getting jobs.”

Tahrir Square, the heart of bustling Cairo, has been the center of Egypt’s political unrest. Hundreds of protesters were killed there in January and February — deaths for which Mubarak is now on trial.

Liberal Facebook activists have gathered there repeatedly since Mubarak’s departure in an attempt to make their voices heard. Islamic groups have come to show their strength and organization. From time to time, the army has swept them all away in clashes that show it is still the force in power.

Military security forces and riot police have clashed with protesters at previous demonstrations, but this week the army issued a statement saying it would allow peaceful gatherings Friday as long as no property was damaged.

And after weeks under tight military control, Tahrir Square appeared to have no security presence Friday.

Instead, protest organizers in street clothes checked identification at entrances to the square.

Despite thousands of protesters, the square was less than half full, and one important group was glaringly absent: Islamic fundamentalists, who have emerged as a powerful political force since Mubarak stepped down.

Once outlawed, the Muslim Brotherhood now can hang its campaign signs everywhere, and Cairo is speckled with them. Salafists — adherents to a puritanical, conservative form of Islam — also can operate far more openly than they once did. But the Brotherhood’s political party, called the Freedom and Justice Party, and the Salafists had announced before Friday’s protest that they would not participate.

Their absence was a marked difference from a much larger protest in late July, when tens of thousands of mostly Salafist protesters packed Tahrir Square to resist what they saw as attempts by the military and liberal protesters to enact constitutional changes that would enshrine Egypt as a secular state.

The July gathering demonstrated the highly organized Islamic groups’ ability to turn out a crowd. Friday’s event revealed the liberals’ relative weakness in that area, a combination that could have important electoral consequences in the November parliamentary elections.

The uncertainty surrounding politics in Egypt extends to whether Mubarak will be convicted on charges of corruption and complicity in the deaths of protesters. On Sunday, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the country’s de facto head of state, is scheduled testify in a closed courtroom about Mubarak’s actions during the January and February protests. Many in Tahrir on Friday were skeptical that Tantawi would implicate his former boss.

“We all hope that he will testify against him,” said Mohammed Yusef, 25. Whether that will actually happen, he said, is another question.

Hassieb is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.


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