In chess, a gambit is a risky strategy in which a player offers a short-term advantage to his opponent in exchange for some other longer-term gain.
The demonstrations which took place outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo go to the heart of the ‘Egyptian gambit’ which has been played out on the Middle Eastern chess board for decades: political elites allow a frustrated Egyptian population to vent their anger against a recognizable ‘enemy’, and bear ensuing political heat because it allows them to exert leverage abroad and protects their legitimacy at home.
Egypt’s military rulers have permitted anti-Israeli protests – to a point – because to repress them in the same way they did renewed protests in Tahrir Square in early August would cost them too much political capital. Standing in defence of a much-reviled Israeli government against the visceral sentiments of most Egyptians would mean alienating a range of political groups, from leftists to ultra-conservative Islamists. It would also give them cause for (some) unity, just as the divisions between them had allowed the military to consolidate its grip. Some within Egypt’s junta are rightly worried that anti-military protests have picked up pace over the past month.
Israel has already protested vigorously with both the Egyptian authorities and with the US. But some in Tel Aviv will privately welcome this event, hoping to use these protests to Israel’s advantage by playing on American and European fears that a truly democratic Egypt – particularly one with Islamists in government – will bring more of such upheavals, not less. The images of protesters demolishing security walls outside the embassy, taking down the Israeli flag and throwing documents out of the windows can easily be made to slot into the Israeli narrative of an Egyptian uprising as an harbinger of uncontrollable radicalism, to be feared more than welcomed.
The US, for its part, will continue to insist that the Egyptian government abide by international agreements, meaning the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the obligation to protect diplomatic representatives. But Washington will hope it will not have to raise its voice too high, as it is well aware of the political cost Egypt’s military rulers would incur were they to beat back protesters.
Ironically, the pawns likely to be sacrificed to maintain this delicate balance of mutual interests are the protesters themselves. Their anger is rooted in genuine distaste for the Israeli government’s policies towards the Palestinians, for the terms of the 1979 peace, and for the way Israel acts with seeming impunity, as it did when it recently killed five Egyptian border officers. But even deeper problems are being left to fester. The call for social, economic and political justice was the hallmark of Egypt’s uprising, and remains the enduring clarion call of the ‘Arab Spring’ – a call as yet unanswered by the political masters of Western and Middle Eastern capitals. People in Egypt and across the region bravely took to the streets chanting ash-sha’b yurid isqaat an-nizaam: the people call for the downfall of the regime. But a regime is more than the Ben Alis or the Mubaraks of this world, it is a way of doing things which builds great riches by exploiting the defenceless, leaving to scramble for the crumbs of fortunes amassed by new oligarchs and silencing their political voice. It is this way of doing things, this nizaam, which has yet to fall, and which a delicate balance of political interests helps keep in place.
The players hovering over the Egyptian chess board know that the old order they are clinging to is a brittle one: while stoking up tensions by ignoring the revolution’s basic demands might find short-term release in protests such as those against the Israeli embassy, in the long term they undermine the very nizaam they are intended to sustain.
The word ‘gambit’ comes from the Italian gambetto, ‘to trip up’, and this is precisely what is happening to the Egyptian revolution. Washington, Tel Aviv and Cairo will be hoping their high-risk strategy will not see them end up flat on their own faces.