Two weeks ago, a mob of angry Egyptians invaded the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing Israeli diplomats to flee and causing one of the few Israeli diplomatic establishments in an Arab country at peace with Israel to close down. (The other, the Israeli embassy in Jordan, also closed after the threat of similar violence prompted Israel to preemptively evacuate its embassy in Amman.) This escalation of anti-Israel rhetoric and action in Egypt threatens not only Egyptian-Israeli relations but also places in jeopardy the credibility and ultimate success of Egypt's transition to democracy. The mobs clamoring for Egypt to abrogate the country's peace treaty with Israel and the vacillation of Egypt's military and civilian rulers could give rise to extremist populist politics. This momentum could, in turn, engulf the institutions through which people in Egypt want to see their country ruled democratically.
In some important ways, the recent mob violence in Cairo does not represent a new phenomenon but brings into even sharper relief a problem that has existed for a long time: namely, the gap between the views and policies of the region's leaders and the attitudes of the Arab street. For years, the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East feared their own citizens more than putative enemy neighbors; now, the Arab uprisings of the past year have unleashed these populist mobs from the constraints of government restrictions. And the picture is not pretty.
In Egypt, the public is motivated by a mix of real grievances and irrational hatreds. More than 30 years of emergency rule, enacted by former President Hosni Mubarak in the aftermath of Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination -- including arbitrary arrests, human rights violations, and corruption -- transformed the Egyptian masses into a seething cauldron of discontent. Egypt's rulers, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Sadat and then Mubarak, deflected this anger away from themselves by allowing anti-Israel (indeed, anti-Semitic) forces almost free rein to infect the public with hateful ideas about Israel and Jews. The ebb and flow of the Arab-Israeli conflict contributed to this mix, as the Egyptian press explained away or simply ignored every Palestinian misdeed and highlighted and exaggerated every Israeli one. Palestinian terrorism against Israeli citizens was described as the work of freedom fighters, while Israeli actions in self-defense were the nasty work of an occupier.
As long as an authoritarian government ruled Egypt, this boiling cauldron could be kept under control, largely through the same means of repression that stifled political opposition of any stripe. However, when Mubarak fell from power in February and the authoritarian grip of the government relaxed, the anger in the street erupted. So far, it has been directed as much at Israel as at the ancien régime. Although the uprising in Tahrir Square had nothing to do with Israel, a substantial segment of the Egyptian public considers Israel to be Egypt's number one enemy -- and thus Egypt's top foreign policy priority.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently governing Egypt, shares responsibility for the uptick in the anti-Israel vitriol of the past weeks. The SCAF has not shown the resolve and judgment that are requisite to the successful exercise of power. For example, it has allowed the Egyptian street to believe that it, not the nominally independent Egyptian judiciary, can dictate the pace and scope of legal proceedings against former members of the Mubarak regime. The SCAF has also allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to emerge not just as one among many political parties but almost as a favored element, with Brotherhood officials "representing" the government on key issues. In one prominent example, a Muslim Brotherhood official was dispatched to tamp down tempers in the Qena Governorate when the governor, a Coptic Christian, came under mob pressure to resign and the military and the civilian government showed no resolve to defend him. And the SCAF, by its silence and tolerance of mob violence, has failed to make it clear to the Egyptian public that, although free expression (including peaceful opposition to Israeli policies) is now permitted, lawless conduct (such as violence against the Israeli embassy and Israelis) is not.
Nowhere in Egypt has the breakdown in law and order been as dramatic as in the Sinai Peninsula. Bedouin in Sinai, willing to sell their cooperation to the highest bidder, have become the de facto authority in Sinai, and terrorists, both from Gaza and reportedly al Qaeda, have used the territory to smuggle arms and plan operations. Militants have repeatedly sabotaged the Egyptian gas pipeline to Israel, with Egyptian authorities doing little to prevent it. And most recently, armed terrorists operating from Sinai attacked Israel from Egyptian territory, shattering the calm of a border that for 30 years has been one of the most visible signs of success in the treaty relationship between the two countries.
A key question is whether different policies by the SCAF and by the United States and Israel can reshape the way the Egyptian public views its government's policies toward Israel. Given the importance of the peace treaty with Israel to Egypt's national security interests, Egypt's leaders cannot afford a return to pre-treaty tensions with Israel that could threaten to boil over at any time. In short, a different approach is possible -- but it will not be easy.
First, the SCAF and Egypt's civilian leaders should work closely with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the United States to create the conditions for a resumption of a serious peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. This process should not raise expectations of quick fixes or immediate results but instead see the two parties commit to sitting down and working through the tough problems that divide them. U.S. President Barack Obama's May 19 speech, in which he called for negotiations on borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, offers a reasonable pathway forward. Egypt should be seen as actively encouraging Israel and the Palestinian Authority to accept these principles as a starting point for talks. To be sure, Egypt's leadership and even the resumption of talks will not assuage all the anger in the Arab street -- at a minimum, the mass demands for internal political change will not change -- but they may draw some of the venom from popular protests.
Second, in Egypt, the SCAF and the government must draw a clearer line between free expression and lawless and violent conduct. This does not mean the country should return to the "emergency laws" that gave police unlimited authority to crack down on dissent.
Rather, Egypt's new rulers must make clear, by issuing public statements and enforcing the rule of law, that violence is unacceptable and that mob behavior will not dictate or drive government policy. In this regard, it is reasonable to assume that the status of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty and bilateral relations will remain a central feature in Egypt's internal debate. Opponents of the treaty must be given a chance to express their views, but so must those who believe that the treaty has been and will continue to be critical for Egypt's well-being.