CAIRO – Egypt declared a state of emergency Saturday after a mob stormed the Israeli Embassy outside Cairo, forcing the evacuation of the ambassador and dealing what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a “severe injury to the fabric of peace” between the two increasingly uneasy allies.
Egyptian officials said that 38 people arrested in the violence would face “immediate prosecution” for the attack that began late Friday night, when hundreds of demonstrators broke down a security wall and ransacked files from a storage area in a remarkable breach of security at the normally well-guarded embassy.
Israeli air force planes left Cairo early Saturday carrying the Israeli ambassador, Yitzhak Levanon, and 80 embassy workers and family members out of the country. Israel said that its diplomatic mission in Egypt continued to operate through a consul office, however, and Netanyahu said in nationally televised remarks that Israel would “hold fast” to its 32-year-old peace accord with Egypt, a linchpin of security in the Middle East.
“We are working together with the Egyptian government to return our ambassador to Cairo soon,” Netanyahu said.
The incident underscored the sharply deteriorating relations between the neighbors since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February following weeks of historic protests. Many Egyptians are venting long-suppressed anger at Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and, more recently, the killing of five Egyptian police officers in a border incident in August.
After crisis meetings with members of the Cabinet and Egypt’s ruling military council, Information Minister Osama Heikal said on state television that the government had implemented a state of emergency “in order to protect the stability of the country and protect embassies and foreign missions.”
Egyptian political movements and youth groups raced to deny involvement in the attack. The Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful Islamist movement in Egypt, said that it condemned “all acts of violence and the attacks on the Israeli Embassy.”
The group said the tensions were fueled by “the government’s slow reaction to the killing of Egyptian (police) officers by Zionist forces” and added that “building a concrete wall to protect the embassy was among the reasons that inflamed nationalist emotions.”