The generals running Egypt's military services need to decide what kind of future they want for their country, and they must decide quickly.
Initial reports of the mob attack on Israel's Cairo embassy suffer from the usual faults of reporting in chaotic conditions: incomplete information mixed with rumor and allegation. We do know Egyptian soldiers eventually rescued Israeli personnel trapped in the building. Israeli media claim that the Egyptian military ignored the Israeli pleas for assistance and only reacted after American diplomatic intervention. We will know more in the coming weeks.
The mob assault and the target, the Israeli embassy, are undisputed facts. Substitute the U.S. for Israel, and the Cairo action mimics Tehran 1979, when Iranian mobs, organized and controlled by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionaries, seized the American embassy. America was the Ayatollah's target of passion, the surface target, but his deep target was Iranian modernizers.
In Egypt 2011, Israel is definitely a target of militant Islamists, but so is the Egyptian revolution. To subvert the Egyptian revolution, militant Islamists must undermine and discredit the generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is functioning as the interim Egyptian government.
The attack on the Israeli embassy serves this purpose.
The Egyptian generals know this, and so do the Israelis. The Israelis have a right to be outraged. Difficult as it is, the Israeli government's best political response to revolutionary Egypt is a cool, distancing "give us a ring when you need help building a modern country, because you will." If the Israeli government can manage that, it will minimize, though not eliminate, Israel's utility as a political scapegoat.
Since the embassy attack, the generals have restored emergency rule. Hosni Mubarak's government employed emergency decree and the use of state security courts. Muslim Brotherhood activists have condemned the SCAF's action as an attempt to crush the revolution -- the goal of discrediting the SCAF is accomplished.
However, this could be a very short-lived political coup for the extremists. The mob violence and embassy assault actually give the SCAF a political opportunity to begin marginalizing extremist factions, should the generals have the courage to use it.
Recent history is a powerful weapon. Here is an outline of the history lesson that should pervade Egyptian media, from twitter to official statements.
Since the first demonstrations began in Cairo this past spring, everyone knew the moment would arrive when militant Islamists would try to subvert modernizing revolutionaries. That moment is now. The Islamist militants recent actions, however, have exposed them and reveal their long term goals.
They are now following Khomeini's Iranian Islamic revolutionary script. Denouncing the U.S. and Israel provided Khomeini with rhetorical cover for intimidating, imprisoning or killing democratic revolutionaries. Now Khomeini's political descendants oppress their own people's political and material aspirations, and assist Syria's Assad regime in its attempt to stay in power.
Subsequent history has rendered a verdict on robed dictatorships -- their social product is poverty, violent oppression, and even more insidious corruption and cronyism than those that existed under Mubarak. These are the shackles Egyptians seek to escape. Must our grandchildren launch an Arab Spring in 2061 against an Egyptian clerical dictatorship?
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's first president after the revolution (and living in exile since 1981, when Khomeini toppled him), serves as a first-hand source. In January, Bani-Sadr warned Tunisian revolutionaries that they must protect their revolution from the fate that befell Iran's. Most Iranian political organizations, Bani-Sadr wrote, "did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic Republic Party, and were pushed aside."
The SCAF should offer to guaranty the security of an Egyptian democratic front and be a unifying political component of that front.