I witnessed Tahrir Square as an Israeli diplomat. 10 years later I’m still looking for peace.
It is a well-known Egyptian proverb: Once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return. I had the privilege of serving as an Israeli diplomat in Cairo, Egypt, on two diplomatic tours. On my first tour, I came to see Cairo as my second home; that was one of the reasons I chose to return for my second.
An Israeli diplomatic tour in Cairo is like no other. We are tasked with building the carefully cultivated peace between Israel and Egypt, hard-won after five wars and thousands of casualties.
In the heart of Cairo is the 6th of October Panorama, a museum and memorial to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It showcases the Egyptian narrative of that war, which set the stage for the peace between Egypt and Israel and Egypt’s reclamation of the Sinai. I used to frequent the venue. One of my favorite experiences was meeting school children out on field trips.I would smile. They’d smile back, even when I introduced myself as Israeli. They would hold out their hands in peace.
Notwithstanding official diplomatic meetings, I’ve found in my career that the most important diplomatic tool is a smile. Sometimes, simply being present to witness history is the most you can do.
The Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia in December of 2010. In Cairo, rumors and bits of information about intentions to organize protests in Egypt began circulating. Friends, including members of the opposition and public figures, insisted that “Egypt is not Tunisia” and “what happened there can’t happen here.”
On Jan. 25, protesters took to the streets and gathered in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, in front of the looming Ministry of Interior. Most of the demonstrators were young; they came from a range of social-economic and religious backgrounds. They organized immaculately using social media: and came prepared with tents for rest and food and water distribution points. After 30 years under the yoke of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, their slogan was “bread, freedom, social justice.”
The peaceful protest turned violent after the morning prayers three days later, on Jan. 28. Violent clashes between protesters, police and military forces exploded in Tahrir Square as well as in other major Egyptian cities. Rioters took advantage of the situation and looting began.
With heavy hearts, Israel’s diplomatic corps in Israel decided to evacuate our families. The next day on the way to the airport, we saw businesses and police stations being looted and burned. Once our families were safe on the plane, we returned to the neighborhood where we worked and lived, Al Maadi. We found locals barricading the roads leading into the neighborhood, holding machetes and chains. Later we learned that these were our neighbors, who were protecting not only their property, but also us. They were there to defend our very lives.
As a precaution the embassy’s staff, and the three family dogs that stayed behind with us, decided to create three communal apartments in our neighborhood. From there, we bore witness to history in the making. On Feb. 11, 2011, President Mubarak resigned. After his resignation some said the youths in the Square became unbearable. I was of a different opinion. A group of youths in our neighborhood organized to clean and clear the streets. I thought they felt empowered and elated. For the first time, they felt like citizens in their own country.
But optimism and euphoria quickly gave way to instability. Confrontations continued between members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful Islamist political organization, conservatives loyal to the regime and the Tahrir protesters. After an incident on the Israeli-Egyptian border, protests were organized in front of our Embassy. These protests culminated in a violent attack on the Embassy on Sept. 9, 2011.
It was then that the decision was made to evacuate all the diplomats and their families, some of whom had returned after the first evacuation. My family’s second stint in Cairo ended with a knock on the door in the dead of night. We got into the car and drove to the airport, hoping no harm would come to anyone on the way.
At the last minute, I received a call from the Director General of the Foreign Ministry asking me to stay in Cairo as Israel’s last representative, so that the promise of diplomatic representation made in the Peace Accords of 1979 would continue to be upheld. Alone, I moved under escort to the American Ambassador’s residence, where I was given shelter. The Muslim Brotherhood won the national elections nine months later. Their regime lasted a year, until President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who became Egypt’s president in June, 2014, and remains in power to this day.
10 years after the Jan. 25 protests set off an upheaval in Egypt’s political life, opinions vary as to the movement’s success. The youths in the square brought about a revolution, which cannot be taken away from them. They and their peers across the region demanded freedom; they aspired to change the reality in which they lived. No matter how mixed the long-term effects of the Arab Spring, that drive to create change remains essential.
Today, we stand on the cusp of a new era of peace in the Middle East. With the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, along with Morocco, have joined Egypt and Jordan in pledging themselves to a lasting peace with Israel.
My colleagues, appointed to newly established diplomatic posts in these Arab nations, will take on the great challenge and privilege of bridging the gap between our nations and peoples. As an Israeli diplomat who served in Cairo when our Embassy was stormed, I left Egypt heartbroken. But I never lost faith in the peace between Israel and Egypt. It is our duty to nurture and grow it, there and across the Middle East. I haven’t been to Egypt since 2011, but I have no doubt I will return, for I have drunk from the Nile.
Israel Nitzan is the Acting Consul General of Israel in New York