Protesters Attack Israeli Embassy In Cairo

Angry Egyptian protesters attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo overnight, breaching the building and sending the Israeli ambassador, his family and most embassy staff fleeing. Host Scott Simon gets the latest from NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon and there's political turmoil in Egypt today, following an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last night. Egypt's prime minister offered to resign hours after protesters stormed the embassy, but the ruling military council announced on state TV that it has rejected the offer. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us from Cairo. Soraya, thanks for being with us.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome.

SIMON: And why did Prime Minister Sharaf move to resign over this? I know there were charges of a slow response.

NELSON: Yeah, they're definitely was quite a slow response. For hours the protesters who went over to the Israeli Embassy, tore down the security wall and then went inside. I mean for hours they were doing their attack and nobody was responding. The police and military did not respond. And so this was quite an embarrassment for the Egyptian government. They're already having very tense relations with Israel at the moment, and so this was something that was expected, that he would offer his resignation. And frankly the military council's rejection of it I think was also expected.

SIMON: How does this reset the table politically in Egypt during a very sensitive time?

NELSON: Well, things will stay as they are the moment, but at least this is a sign to Israel that Egypt is taking seriously this event that happened overnight, that basically they are admitting more or less that this was something that they should have been dealing with little bit more quickly and forcefully. And so hopefully this will help ease some of the tension between the two countries, which is really, really at an all-time high.

SIMON: Well, what is the scene like at the embassy today?

NELSON: Well, it looked like a war zone. I mean you have burned out cars. You have rocks everywhere, teargas canisters. If fact, the teargas was lingering in the air even this morning still, and it was - compared to last night, there were many more soldiers and police officers, all very serious looking armed with batons and riot shields and the like. And the crowd was very quiet this morning that was there. There were about 200 people in they were watching. The one thing that we could see was that there was an Egyptian flag instead of an Israeli one hanging over the Israeli Embassy at the moment.

NELSON: We spoke with one protester, Gigi Ibrahim, who witnessed the attack overnight, and she claims it was spontaneous, with a small group of protesters breaking off from a larger more peaceful gathering that had started earlier in the day in the major downtown square of Tahrir, and that these people headed to the Israeli embassy, which is about a half an hour's walk away. And Ibrahim said some of these protesters then broke into the embassy.

GIGI IBRAHIM: They were throwing all these papers and documents from the balcony...

SIMON: Soraya, Israel and Egypt have had relations for many years, and that embassy has been untouched. What happened now?

NELSON: Well, there are several reasons that were given. One is that there's been a building momentum, if you will, among Egyptians who would like to see the relationship between Israel and Egypt put to a vote for the Egyptian people, rather than having it be determined by the government as it was before. And on the other hand, there was also a great concern about what happened with several Egyptian soldiers last month. They were killed as Israeli forces were pursuing Palestinian militants, and there was a lot of anger over that and a feeling that the Egyptian government did not respond strongly enough to Israelis for doing that.

SIMON: Soraya, are there any Israeli diplomats or personnel left inside the embassy?

NELSON: Well, we're told there's a deputy ambassador, or at least a high-ranking official left inside. I think both sides are eager to show that the embassy remains open, despite this very difficult time. And so, even though it's not open for business today, the embassy is still functional.

SIMON: And how does this incident affect Arab-Israeli relations, as what we keep saying, is such a sensitive time in the relationship?

NELSON: Well, certainly the Egyptian relationship with Israel is one that is very, very key to the greater scheme of things. I mean, there are not too many countries that have relationships with Israel in the Arab world. Egypt and Jordan are the two main ones. And so, the fact that this has happened and that there is so much animosity towards Israel that is now spilling out into the open because you don't have a regime anymore that's stopping this sort of talk, it's really become a crisis. This is something - the Egyptians here, even though many were not happy with this attack on the embassy overnight, they do feel that they would like to revisit whether in fact the relations are as they were determined by the previous regime.

SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo. Thanks so much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Scott.

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