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Israeli diplomats and their families have been evacuated out of Egypt after protesters stormed the embassy in Cairo.
CAIRO, Egypt — Once focused on ousting their former leader, Hosni Mubarak, protesters in Cairo have found a new target in recent weeks: Israel.
Egyptians have been directing their fury toward Israel since a deadly incident on Aug. 19, during which Israeli security forces killed five Egyptian officers in a brief cross-border raid into the Sinai Peninsula.
The Israelis had been searching for armed militants who had attacked and killed eight people on their side of the porous frontier.
In Egypt's capital, the public uproar over the killings has yet to subside. Thousands have gathered outside Israel’s embassy in Cairo, burning Israeli flags and demanding the expulsion of the country’s ambassador, despite an implicit statement of regret from Tel Aviv.
On Friday, Egypt's capital saw one of the largest demonstrations in recent weeks. Israeli diplomats were evacuated Saturday after Friday's protests turned violent.
“We have little ability to exercise our national dignity when it comes to Israel. Nothing has really changed.”~Tarek Amin, 19, Egyptian protester
But it isn't just Israel that is the focus of protesters' wrath. Some Egyptians are also turning on their own government’s handling of the diplomatic row.
Why? Egypt’s military-led interim authority, which assumed power when Mubarak fell on Feb. 11, aren't listening to the masses, say protesters — a complaint similar to those they voiced about Mubarak.
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After the anti-Israel protests, Egypt's leaders constructed a 9-foot-tall concrete barricade outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, ostensibly to prevent neighborhood damage by protests.
Protesters view the barrier as yet another indicator that their new military rulers, like Mubarak, are ignoring the will of the people and using force to block dissent on the streets.
Moreover, the wall suggests that the new Egyptian government isn't likely to change its tune on Israel, despite vocal popular opposition.
Tarek Amin, 19, another protester outside the embassy, said the interim government is all-too remniscent of Mubarak's administration.
“Since the revolution, Egyptians have had little ability to exercise our national dignity when it comes to Israel. So, nothing has really changed,” said Amin.
On Friday, thousands of mostly young, secular activists descended once again to the streets around Tahrir Square — the epicenter of Egypt's uprising in January — to demand greater political reform and a return to civilian rule in the country.
Much of the anger in Tahrir was directed squarely at Egypt's army, once seen as the safeguards of the revolution. Though, protesters also voiced their displeasure with Israel, destroying parts of the barrier outside the embassy.
"We are going to destroy the wall outside the Israeli embassy today!" screamed one man just outside Tahrir, proudly displaying a small sledgehammer painted in the red, white, and black colors of the Egyptian flag.
Several hours after the midday Friday prayers, hundreds of protesters began marching across the Nile River to the district of Giza, where the Israeli embassy is located.
Chanting "God is great" and "the people demand the removal of the wall," hundreds of activists began chiseling at the concrete barrier with hammers, wooden chairs, and metal pipes.
By nightfall, scores of activists could be seen trying to uproot entire metal streetlight poles from a sidewalk near the Nile bridge leading to the embassy, to use as battering rams to finish demolishing the 300-foot long wall.
Egyptian security forces formed a cordon around the wall in the early afternoon on Friday, but ultimately did not step in when protesters began destroying large parts of the wall.
In response to the violent turn that protests took Friday, Israeli diplomats were evacuated from Egypt.
Egypt became the first Arab country to formalize relations with Israel in 1979, though relations between the two neighbors has been frosty ever since.
Mubarak maintained the peace treaty with U.S. support throughout his three decades in power, presumably to preserve regional stability, although a majority of Egyptians viewed the terms of the accords with skepticism.
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But it wasn’t until after Mubarak was toppled in February that Egyptians began to more openly express their dissatisfaction with their country's policy on Israel.
As many as 54 percent of Egyptians want the treaty annulled, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in April.
The growing tension hit a breaking point with the deaths of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai.
“The people demand the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador,” screamed hundreds of protesters outside Israel’s embassy, shortly after the Aug. 19 attacks.
One of the demonstrators, Ahmad al-Shahat, was so furious that he ripped down Israel’s national flag from where it flew above the embassy — a feat which required scaling up the side of the 13-story apartment building that houses the embassy on its top floor.
The 23-year-old “Flagman,” as he is now referred to in the local media, instantly gained celebrity status and was even rewarded with an apartment and a new job by his regional governor, according to newspapers.
“I did it to please millions of Egyptians and Arabs,” al-Shahat told reporters at a press conference last month.
Despite the popularity of “Flagman,” the country’s military rulers have shown little willingness to dramatically alter Egypt’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel in the post-Mubarak era.
Security forces deployed batons and tear gas to crush a demonstration in May that called for an end to the country’s long-standing sale of natural gas to Israel.
Government assurances that Egypt’s border with Gaza would be opened following Mubarak’s departure — after nearly four years of closure — have not yet been fully realized.
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Critics have also complained that Egypt’s military carries too much weight when political decisions are made by the new government.
The country’s civilian leaders announced their recall of Egypt's ambassador to Israel at the height of the August protests, but were eventually overruled by the military, according to Emad Gad, a researcher at the state-funded Al-Ahram Center think tank in Cairo.
If the interim government is ignoring the sentiment on the street, upstart politicians may be starting to listen.
Several candidates, parties, and political movements — from seculars to socialists to the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood — have taken a more populist stance on the recent crisis in Sinai.
Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief and possible presidential candidate in upcoming elections, criticized the government’s response to the crisis, and renewed calls to summon Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv.
“Israel must be aware that the days when it kills our children without getting a strong, appropriate response are gone for ever,” Moussa wrote on Twitter in August.
But for many Egyptians, a visible street protest is the most effective way to encourage change.
Ahmed Amin, 25, was one of the many Egyptians who recently tagged graffiti along the concrete barricade outside Israel’s embassy in Cairo. The entire length of the wall — roughly 300-feet — is now completely covered in the red, white, and black colors of Egypt’s flag.
Most of the graffiti, like “Down with Israel!” and “To the Israeli ambassador: get the hell out of our country!” attacked the neighbor to the north.
Amin’s message, however, was directed squarely at Egypt’s military leaders. It encouraged continued demonstrations in spite of the barricade.
“Our government may have built a tangible, concrete wall to prevent us from protesting here,” said Amin. “But they will never be able to build a wall around our minds.”