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Attack on Israel’s embassy stirs fear on Egypt’s leaders

Allies worry new rulers unable to maintain stability

Egyptian soldiers stood guard at Israel’s embassy in Cairo yesterday after protesters stormed the building with six staff inside. Egyptian commandos rescued them, Israeli officials said. Egyptian soldiers stood guard at Israel’s embassy in Cairo yesterday after protesters stormed the building with six staff inside. Egyptian commandos rescued them, Israeli officials said. (Ahmed Ali/Associated Press)
By David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / September 11, 2011

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CAIRO - The mob attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Friday - which led to a military evacuation by Israel of its diplomatic staff - has raised concerns about whether Egypt’s military-led transitional government can maintain law and order.

Israeli officials said that six members of their staff were rescued early yesterday morning by Egyptian commandos. But that was only after hours of rioting at the embassy, during which the Egyptian security forces mainly remained on the sidelines.

Rioters were allowed to tear down the wall protecting the embassy and storm into offices. They tore down the Israeli flag for the second time in a month.

Soccer fans angry at a recent security crackdown at a match last week played a big role in the attack. So did anger at Israel among Egyptians that was long suppressed by Egypt’s former leader, Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s prime minister, Essam Sharaf, who serves under the council of military officers acting as a transitional government, called an emergency Cabinet meeting as its Interior Ministry put the police on alert to guard against more violence.

The clashes pitted thousands of protesters hurling stones and homemade bombs against thousands of riot police officers firing barrages of tear gas. The Interior Ministry said yesterday that at least two people had died in the strife at the embassy - one from a bullet wound and the other from a heart attack - as many as 1,200 had been wounded.

As late as yesterday afternoon, enough tear gas lingered in the streets around the embassy to force passersby to clutch tissues over their noses.

For both Israel and Egypt, and for Egyptian allies, the unchecked nature of the attack raised new questions about the ability of the military-led government to maintain stability.

Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu said in a televised address yesterday that his government is committed to Israel’s treaty with Egypt but said the embassy attack inflicted a “severe injury to the fabric of peace’’ between the two countries.

Netanyahu stopped short of condemnations and instead stressed the need to maintain the strategic relationship with Egypt, whose peace with Israel has been a vital point of stability for the Jewish state. “We will continue to keep the peace with Egypt it is an interest of both countries,’’ he said.

Throughout the night of the rampage, desperate Israeli officials placed several calls to their American counterparts seeking help to press the Egyptians to take more action to protect the embassy. Defense Minister Ehud Barak called Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and Netanyahu called President Obama, Israeli and US officials said.

In Washington, the White House said Obama had “expressed his great concern’’ about the embassy situation in his conversation with Netanyahu. The statement said Obama had called on the government of Egypt “to honor its international obligations to safeguard the security of the Israeli Embassy.’’

Since taking over for Mubarak in the name of the revolution, the council of officers running Egypt has repeatedly sought whenever possible to avoid confrontations with street protesters as it has tried to preserve its own tenuous legitimacy until parliamentary elections, now set for this fall.

While the military police have occasionally surprised protesters with severe crackdowns and waves of arrests, the council has more often withdrawn the security forces to the sidelines of major demonstrations to avoid clashes, as it did Friday night. And the council has often seemed to accede to many, if not all, of protesters’ demands that do not threaten its own power or prestige.

On Friday, however, the military council’s strategy of getting out of the way allowed the invasion of a foreign embassy, an extraordinary breach of Egypt’s international commitments that is raising new security concerns at other embassies as well.

“It has led to a complete loss of credibility in the government internationally from all directions,’’ a Western diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In addition to attacking the Israeli Embassy, witnesses said, protesters also menaced the nearby embassy of Saudi Arabia, which many Egyptians believe to be a conservative force around the region that has pushed their own government to avoid the precedent of retribution against Mubarak. “Saudi Arabia and Mubarak are one hand,’’ protesters chanted.

Yesterday, Egyptian politicians at every level, from the young leaders of the revolution to the older liberals and Islamists, spoke against the outbreak of violence the night before. A coalition of young organizers of the revolution held a news conference to fault the military council for failing to provide any security during the day and evening only to respond late at night with brutal force.

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