Israel scrambled its diplomatic staff out of Egypt early Saturday after protesters tore down a wall and broke into the Israeli Embassy. As thousands more protesters torched police vehicles and clashed with security forces, an Egyptian commando squad rescued six embassy guards trapped inside the building.
Israeli officials who tracked events during the night described tense hours in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone with President Obama and the chief of Egyptian intelligence while monitoring events over a direct link to the besieged guards.
Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, also called his US counterparts to ask them to press the Egyptians to do more to protect the embassy.
“Our assessment was that they had 20 minutes to hold out, and in those 20 minutes the Egyptian commandos would arrive,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a television interview Saturday. In response to the crisis, Egypt’s ruling military council announced a security crackdown Saturday, saying it would make full use of the country’s emergency law to ensure safety. It was a move that exposed the fragility of the new government’s control of the streets.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s police force kept a tight lid on the population, and improved civil liberties were a key demand for protesters who ousted their leader in February. Since then, much of the police force has remained off the streets, and other security forces have sometimes struggled with how to respond to protests. On Friday, a small crew of soldiers stood back as crowds massed outside the embassy.
The incident underlined the altered relationship between Israel and post-revolutionary Egypt, in which popular anti-Israeli sentiment, fueled by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, has threatened to undermine relations cemented in a 1979 peace treaty.
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