The unfolding revolution in Egypt has not only caused nervousness among Arab
dictators, it has also sent shockwaves throughout Israeli society.
that the end of the Mubarak dictatorship will lead to an Islamist takeover, the
tearing up of the peace treaty between the two countries – and perhaps even
full-out war – permeate the country.
But are these fears justified? Could
Egypt really become the next Middle Eastern theocracy? Well, in my honest
opinion, those who warn or fear such an eventuality have either not been
following the situation in Egypt closely, or are ideologically disinclined to
believe that Egyptians and Arabs are capable of forging and maintaining a
SINCE PROTESTS began on 25 January, I have been following
events very closely. In fact, for an expatriate Egyptian who has long dreamed of
democracy in his homeland, the demonstrations have made compulsive viewing, and
have filled me with the urge to fly back to Egypt. In all the endless hours of
footage I’ve watched, I have not seen any protesters chanting Islamist slogans,
burning American or Israeli flags, or chanting death to Israel.
protesters – mostly ordinary people from across Egypt and from all walks of life
and from the country’s two main religious groups – are out to protest economic
inequality and demand their political freedom.
They have been making very
clear and precise demands: the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak and
his entire regime, the appointment of a transitional “national salvation”
government and the holding of free and fair democratic elections as soon as
Although millions took to the streets over the past week and a
half, the demonstrations have been peaceful and orderly – this in a country
famed for its semi-disorganized chaos – and despite the regime’s best efforts to
lock down communications and transport networks.
In fact, the only
violence so far has come from the government and not the people, as demonstrated
by the violent police reaction to early protests and the government-backed goons
and thugs that turned Tahrir (Liberation) Square – the symbolic heart of the
protests – into a battlefield in a bid to intimidate the protesters into
But they refused to be intimidated, those Egyptians whom so
many had dismissed, including themselves, as lacking the steadfastness and
wherewithal to challenge the status quo.
In spite of the fallen and
despite being beaten, battered, abandoned and under siege, they came out in
spades across the country for the “Friday of Departure.”
But the diehard
dictator is still refusing to budge.
When not under attack by police or regime thugs, the
demonstrations were often marked by an almost carnival air, with people singing
and dancing and employing the wry wit for which Egyptians are well-known
throughout the Arab world to scathing effect.
DESPITE ALL these clear
signals, there are widespread fears in Israel that the Muslim Brotherhood is
waiting in the wings to take over power. “In a situation of chaos, an organized
Islamist body can seize control of a country.
It happened in Iran. It
happened in other instances,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said last week
following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reflecting the tone of
speculation across much of the Israeli political spectrum.
So, could we
be on the path towards the creation of the Islamic Republic of Egypt? The
longstanding theory, exploited by Mubarak and other dictators, that when
presented with democratic choice, Arabs would vote for Islamists who would then
strip citizens of their democratic rights and so it is best to prop up friendly
dictators, is not only inaccurate but insulting, arrogant and unfair. It is like
saying that democracy is something only “civilized” peoples can comprehend and
uphold, and, hence, Arabs have no right to aspire to it.
I highly doubt
that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of
gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution,
even if Iran itself, for propaganda purposes, has drawn parallels between its
own revolution and current events in Egypt.
But there is a world of
difference between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011. For one, the Egyptian Sunni
clergy is not politicized and is not held in the same kind of awe as its Shi’a
counterpart. Iran had the charismatic and "holy" cult figure Ayatollah Khomeini,
while the Muslim Brotherhood is largely made up of conservative and rather grey
professionals in suits, i.e. doctors, lawyers and engineers.
significantly, the party missed the boat in this revolution by refusing to take
part in the protests, which were actually initiated by disaffected and
disempowered youth, or back them until it was clear to everyone that they were
unstoppable. The movement’s top brass, under the conservative and cautious
leadership of Mohammed Badie, has proven itself not only to be out of touch with
the popular mood, but also with the younger, more open-minded generation within
its own ranks.
In addition, one factor behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s
apparent success and popularity, with the movement often described as Egypt’s
largest opposition party, is the fact that it was kind of the “last man
standing” after the secular opposition was purged, starting in the 1970s under
Anwar el-Sadat who also backed the Islamist current as a counterbalance to his
powerful secular opponents.
But now, with freedom beckoning and plurality
around the corner, the Brotherhood can no longer play the dual role of being
both the last protest party for the disenfranchised and the demon used by the
regime to scare the outside world. In fact, with the emergence of democracy, the
Brotherhood, as Egypt’s second oldest party (though one that has been banned for
most of its existence), would only be one of Egypt’s many political and social
movements, albeit a fairly influential one, and could perhaps eventually morph
into a sort of “Muslim Democratic” party. As a secular progressive, I have
little love for the Muslim Brotherhood, but if there are Egyptians who wish to
vote for them, that‘s their choice to make.
That said, even for religious
Egyptians, the Brotherhood is not the only show in town, especially since more
and more people are discovering that its slogan “Islam is the answer” has not
really answered anything. For example, one hijabbed female protester interviewed
by Al-Jazeera recently insisted that, though she was a devout Muslim, she would
not vote for the Brotherhood, because for her, religion was a private
MORE IMPORTANTLY, I cannot help think that Israel is drawing the
wrong lessons from the Iranian revolution. To my mind, what the Iranian
revolution demonstrates is that if you suppress people’s desire for freedom for
too long and back tyrants and dictators, then eventually extremism will emerge.
Had the CIA not bankrolled a coup d’état against Iran’s democratically elected
prime minister, Muhammad Mosaddegh, in 1953 and reinstated the Shah, then the
Islamic revolution would probably never have occurred and the West would be
enjoying more cordial relations with a free and democratic Iran.
urging the United States and Europe to help Mubarak cling on to power, Israel
could unwittingly be helping to create the monster it fears. Luckily, it appears
that US President Barack Obama has apparently drawn the correct lessons from
history with his insistence that only the Egyptian people can determine their
Besides, at its heart, the Arab-Israeli conflict is about land
and a clash of competing nationalisms. For instance, it wasn’t so long ago that
Israel and the United States feared Arab secularists and supported Islamists as
a counterbalance against them.
So, Israelis would do well to heed the
advice of one protester on Tahrir Square. “If Israel continues to support
Mubarak, we will start to hate Israel more and more,” he said. “Israel has to
give up. Now Israel is a friend of one man, of Mubarak, but tomorrow it needs to
be a friend of 80 million.”
Moreover, democracy is a value that you
either believe in or you do not. You cannot say that dictatorship is fine as
long as it serves our interests. It would be like saying that because Israel
voted in the most right-wing government in living memory, with some extremists
thrown in, Israelis no longer deserve to rule themselves and should have a
dictatorship imposed upon them.
SO WHAT are the likely effects of
democracy on Egypt’s relations with Israel? Since most of Egypt’s political
class is unhappy with Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people, the cold
Egyptian-Israeli peace would remain just as cool or may well chill a few
degrees, regardless of the composition of a future democratic
Nevertheless, the peace treaty is binding on Egypt, has
brought it stability and most Egyptians do not want to go to war with Israel. I
don’t think any Egyptian government would risk reneging on it. It is likely,
however, to do the bare minimum to respect it and, fuelled by popular sympathy
for the plight of the Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, will probably end
Egypt’s co-operation in maintaining the Gaza blockade.
If Israel values
its relationship with Egypt and wishes the current cold peace to warm up a
little, it needs to reach a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian
As long as that festering wound remains, Israeli-Egyptian
relations will remain tense.
In many ways, the ball is in Israel’s court.
Although Israelis are fond of saying that Arabs and Palestinians “never miss an
opportunity to miss an opportunity” - and they have missed a fair number of
those - the evidence suggests that the main obstacle to peace has been Israeli
intransigence, founded on a reluctance to cede conquered territory. But this has
come at a heavy human price for the Palestinians and has also carried a heavy
moral price for Israel, isolating it not only regionally but
As Sadat warned with prescience in his historic speech
to the Knesset in 1977: “In all sincerity, I tell you that there can be no peace
without the Palestinians. It is a grave error of unpredictable consequences to
overlook or brush aside this cause.”
The writer is a Brussels-based
journalist of Egyptian origin. He writes a regular column for the UK's
The Guardian and contributes to a number of publications in Europe, the Middle
East and the United States. His website is www.chronikler.com
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