Reopening Israeli embassy in Cairo: In whose best interest?

The Israeli embassy in Cairo officially reopened amid complete media silence, a fact that rendered the event more controversial than it already is

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The Israeli embassy in Cairo officially reopened amid complete media silence, a fact that rendered the event more controversial than it already is.

Egypt kept a low profile in the opening ceremony, sending the deputy chief of protocol to attend.

By comparison, the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry flew in from Tel Aviv. This has raised questions about how the Egyptian state feels about the reopening, and whether it was reluctant.

That the opening coincided with clashes in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, in which a considerable number of Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces, gave the impression that public anger, which initially closed the embassy in 2011, is no longer an issue for the state. Choosing the fourth anniversary of the attack that triggered the evacuation of the embassy, Sept. 9, for the reopening also raised eyebrows.

Public anger

Nationalist activist and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi said the Egyptian people did not want an Israeli embassy in Cairo, and that is why they closed it. “That was a long time before the recent clashes in Al-Aqsa mosque,” he said. “The embassy isn’t welcome anyway, and its closing in 2011 was a reflection of public will. Therefore it shouldn’t reopen, and we should stop sending ambassadors to Tel Aviv.”

This sentiment was echoed in a statement by the leftist Al-Karama Party: “Regardless of the re-opening, Egyptians will remain against an Israeli presence in Egypt.” The statement added that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is not in the former’s interest. “This treaty restricts the Egyptian military presence in Sinai, and this is a threat to Egypt’s national security.”

Mohamed Seif al-Dawla, an expert in Palestinian affairs, said the reopening of the Israeli embassy is an indication of how close the two countries are now. “They’ve actually reached a level of closeness that didn’t even happen during the Mubarak era,” he said. “American and Israeli analysts said Egyptian-Israeli relations have never been that deep.”

Seif al-Dawla added that this closeness was manifested in several actions by the Egyptian state, including closing the Rafah border crossing, blocking the tunnels leading to Gaza, and creating a buffer zone between Rafah and the Palestinian territory.

Seif al-Dawla said the choice of date was a flagrant challenge to the will of the people. “It’s as if Israel is telling Egyptian revolutionaries who led to its closure to go to hell. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry is party to this insult to the revolution, since it approved the date.”

Shahenda Maklad, a member of the National Council for Human Rights, described Egypt’s decision to reopen the embassy as “disgraceful,” and refused to see it as a step toward preserving national security. “Israel has always been exporting terrorism to Egypt and the rest of the Arab world,” she said, adding that a popular referendum should be conducted on the issue, and the state had to respect the will of the people.

Common interests

Tarek Fahmi, a political analyst and expert in Israeli affairs, said the reopening of the embassy was inevitable. “This is part of international law. Countries that have diplomatic relations should have embassies,” he said. “Plus, Egyptian-Israeli relations have been stable for a while, so there’s no reason why the embassy shouldn’t be reopened.”

Saeid al-Lawendi, an expert in international relations, said public anger was not expected to stop the reopening. “True, the majority of Egyptian people don’t want the Israeli embassy, but common interests between the two countries can’t be ignored.” Lawendi added that the reopening was more important for Israel, “a Middle Eastern country that seeks stability. This won’t be achieved without good relations with Egypt.”

However, journalist Mohamed Ali sees the reopening as more important for Egypt. “The latest terrorist attacks in Sinai necessitated increasing military staff in the peninsula, and this can’t be done without coordinating with Israel as the peace treaty stipulates.” Ali added: “Disagreements about the Palestinian question will be the same, and so will popular rejection of bilateral relations, but security cooperation between Egypt and Israel will remain inevitable.”

Tawfik Hamid, senior researcher at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said the reopening was a demonstration of Egypt’s respect for the peace treaty with Israel. “The attack on the embassy in 2011 was an unethical act.”

Political analyst Mohamed Ayesh saw the choice of date as a strong Israeli message to the Egyptian people that “Israel does not look back and is not intimidated by any threats.” Ayesh said both countries “are fighting militant groups, amongst which is Hamas, and the developments in the region require the enhancement of security cooperation between them.”

Ahmed Abu Zeid, official spokesman of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, said the reopening should not be blown out of proportion. “The ambassador has been here doing his job from his residence for the past four years and relations between the two countries have been normal,” he said. “What happened was only an official opening of a temporary headquarters at the ambassador’s residence.”