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Pausing for #flagman

August 22, 2011

Footage of the Egyptian who removed the Israeli flag from the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week.

A curious thing happened last week in Cairo. Actually, a series of curious things. And not necessarily in Cairo. First, along the Egypt-Israel border, Israeli forces accidentally killed Egyptian soldiers. Now, it seems an unlikely thing, given that the border between those two states is about as established as any border gets. It’s no DMZ, but the troops on either side certainly know where each other are at all times. Chaos broke loose, with the Egyptian foreign ministry pledging to remove its charges from the embassy in Tel Aviv. But Ehud Barak apologized to Egypt, in an unheard of move. Whether the accidental killing had anything to do with the terror attack near Eilat and increased activities near the border is unclear. This led to protests, naturally, outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

Ahmed El Shahat is his name. He’s been dubbed “flag-man,” “hero” and “Spiderman.” He’s already got a cartoon. He’s lauded as a hero and a symbol of Egyptian might against a treaty proclaimed at Camp David thirty years ago and a regime that no one consented to. He scaled a massive building with the Egyptian flag in hand, which he exchanged with the Israeli one, with thousands below him cheering and chanting.

Is that right? Lots of bold actions are taken in the heat of protest. And the outrage that many Egyptians across Twitter and the blogosphere is real and it is founded. Egypt’s complicity in the virtual imprisonment of Gaza and its allowing the Palestinian situation to stagnate is viewed as a product of the Mubarak regime. It is something which Egyptians resent Egypt and Israel alike for. The killing of Egyptian security forces last week, while they were firmly in Egyptian soil, crossed a line.

But today, there are calls for “Zionists to get out.” I don’t know that it’s anti-Semitism, and I think most Egyptian writers and thinkers would be astounded and ashamed if that term were ascribed to them. While flag-man may have accomplished something brave and bold, it seems hardly constructive. It also seems like a safety valve for a lot of negative vitriol could be abused or spin out of control into something worse. It’s a drop in the bucket in terms of international violations and the rules surrounding the immunity and protective statuses of consulates and embassies around the world. One search of the #flagman hashtag on Twitter will tell you he’s respected and folks are overjoyed.

But as much anger as you have at the state of Israel and its actions, a threatening move made on its embassy is not appropriate. The people that work their deserve to work and operate in safety. Yes, millions of Palestinians live their lives lacking both of those things. But two wrongs don’t make a right here. #flagman may have his day, but allowing situations to degenerate into chaotic scrambles isn’t right.

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