Friday's attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo by protestors marching from Tahrir Square and the subsequent harsh security crackdown could become an epic fail for the Egyptian revolution. That's not because Egyptians shouldn't protest against Israel if that's what angers them, and it's not because the incident is likely to escalate to war. It's because the incident could easily become an excuse for the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to postpone elections, expand rather than surrender its Emergency Law powers, and avoid the transfer of power to a legitimate civilian government. What's more, these moves might now win applause rather than condemnation among key constituencies: revolutionaries who were already skeptical of elections, liberals worried that Islamists will win, and Americans and others abroad worried about the implications of Egyptian democracy for Israel.
This would be a terrible mistake. The absence of any legitimate political institutions seven months after Mubarak's fall and the SCAF's arbitrary and unaccountable rule are what created the political vaccuum which has brought Egypt to this edge. Yesterday's chaos should not be taken as a reason to postpone a democratic transition. It should instead be a powerful reminder of the urgency of sticking to the timeline for elections and getting on with the business of building an Egyptian democracy. Those who care about Egypt completing its revolution should now be doubling down on the urgency of a real democratic transition -- not backing away from it.
I'm not going to go over what happened Friday night yet again, or repeat what I wrote last week about how Egypt got to this point -- for a review, go read my introduction to the new POMEPS Brief on the State of the Egyptian Revolution (free download). I'll just say that Friday's protest has hardly resolved the growing strategic and identity problems of a protest movement divided between revolutionaries and liberals and struggling to connect with an impatient and frustrated Egyptian public. The September 9 Tahrir demonstration had been meant to "correct the path" of the revolution after this summer's struggles. Even before the Embassy incident, the results had been mixed. It generated very real energy and enthusiasm among the participants, and activists have high hopes that the energy will carry over to a wave of strikes across the country planned for this and coming weeks. Despite the relatively small turnout (maybe 20,000) and the cacophany of different demands muddying the message, people in Tahrir on Friday reported positive energy and more enthusiasm than had been felt in months.
Activists and observers disagree unusually sharply about the Israeli Embassy storming. The international response has been almost universally negative, with the Western media filled with images of a violent mob and a revolution gone awry. The pessimists about the Arab uprisings are claiming vindication. Many Egyptian liberals as well watched horrified, convinced that the revolutionaries had just given the SCAF all the excuse it needed to crack down even harder. They see Friday's chaos as a dangerous move away from demanding democracy and domestic reform. Many people are darkly speculating that the Israeli Embassy incident must have been a set-up by the SCAF (why was the Embassy so lightly guarded) or by Islamists to discredit the revolution (even if Islamists by all accounts were absent from the scene).
The most fervent online revolutionaries, by contrast, consider the attack on the Embassy and the flight of the Israeli Embassy staff a great success. Revolutions require escalation and street conflict, especially when the SCAF has proven (in their eyes) that it will not change without real popular pressure. They seem baffled by the hand-wringing of critics, don't care about international perceptions, and doubt whether the SCAF could get any worse (Sarah Carr gives an eloquent presentation of this perspective here). Protesting against Israel is genuinely popular among Egyptians, some reckon, and allows them a rare opportunity to outflank cautious Islamists on the nationalist card.
In my view, the greatest tragedy of the Embassy crisis is that the most urgent demands articulated for September 9 have been completely lost. Last week's major demands were urgent and compelling: ending military trials, judicial and police reform, and setting a timetable for a return to civilian rule. Nobody is talking about those issues today. All the talk instead is of the storming of the Israeli Embassy and the resulting chaos. The gap between the different strands of the January 25 coalition has never seemed wider. Those who hope for rapid, fundamental political change towards democracy are on the defensive. And the move against the Israeli Embassy feels depressingly familiar rather than revolutionary. How could the very activists who began their campaign by demonstrating in Tahrir in support of the Palestinian Intifada ten years ago forget that Hosni Mubarak happily let protestors demonstrate against Israel as long as they avoided domestic issues?
These are issues for Egyptians to resolve. But here in Washington I can only urge the Obama administration, Congress, and the American public not to allow the incident to be used as an excuse to delay elections or to avoid serious reforms. They should not accept the SCAF's arguments that this weekend shows the need for a strong hand and a delay of democratic reforms. The needs for ending military trials and for judicial and police reform are just as urgent today as they were yesterday. The need for a transition to rule by a fairly elected civilian government has never been more clear. The SCAF's ongoing, arbitrary and unaccountable military rule -- along with its increasingly reckless fomenting of a xenophobic nationalism -- created the conditions for yesterday's clashes. Allowing the SCAF to back away from real institutional reforms and a timeline for elections would kill what hopes remain for Egyptian democracy, empower radicals, discredit and block those who have committed to preparing for elections, and force people back into the streets for lack of other alternatives. That's would only guarantee that the crisis will get worse.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.