Pro-democracy protestors launched an assault on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on September 9, prompting the military leaders of Egypt’s transitional government to declare a state of alert and forcing the Israeli ambassador to temporarily leave the country. Although outrage over the killing of five Egyptian border guards by Israeli forces pursuing suspected Palestinian terrorists played a role in triggering the incident, the violence occurred within the context of the regular Friday demonstrations in Tahrir Square that have become a feature of the political landscape since early 2011. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions, wary of jeopardizing what they see as an opportunity to achieve political legitimacy, have adopted a strategy of cooperation with the military-led regime, and boycotted the most recent protests. As such, it is probably fair to interpret the attack on the embassy as but one element of a broader effort to pressure the military-led regime to accelerate the pace of political reforms.

Developments since the ransacking of the embassy suggest that the protesters made a serious miscalculation. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that currently controls the government, has announced the extension of the controversial Emergency Law until mid-2012, and has vowed to try those responsible for inciting or participating in the assault. There is already evidence pointing to a strong possibility that many activists who played no role in the incident, but are viewed as a threat by the military-led government, will be detained on that pretext. A crackdown undertaken in defense of Israel’s sovereign rights is unlikely to draw strong criticism from international quarters.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf offered to resign along with his entire Cabinet in the wake of the attack, but the SCAF rejected the proposal. Consequently, Sharaf and the other civilian representatives in the transitional regime will remain in their posts, despite the prime minister’s acknowledgment that he and his Cabinet have lost any claim to popular legitimacy. Such a situation provides little cause for optimism with regard to the prospects for rapid progress toward the establishment of a truly democratic system of government.

Look for a detailed Egypt update from Political Risk Services later this month.

Commentary published by The PRS Group, Inc. • September 14, 2011