Cheering from the sidelines

As massive protests overwhelm Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Arabs watch and wait for the regime to fall into – they predict – more democratic hands.

Cairo protests 521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Cairo protests 521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The tumultuous scenes from Cairo, broadcast by Al Arabiya, were playing on a TV screen on the wall of a candy store along Jaffa’s Rehov Yefet.
Watching from behind the counter was cab driver Ahmed Guti, taking a break to visit his friend who runs the shop.
So what did he think of this Egyptian intifada – was it a negative thing as Israeli Jews tend to see it, or a positive thing? “Definitely, it’s a positive thing, of course,” said Guti, 50. “Everyone you talk to is with the people in Egypt; no one’s against them. Everyone wants this dictator [President Hosni] Mubarak to go.”
The Arab world is in upheaval, and Arabs make up 20 percent of the population, so naturally their eyes are on Cairo. And while Israeli Jews, starting with the government, fear that the country’s vital Arab ally will fall not to democrats but to Islamic extremists, Israeli Arabs have no such fear.
I talked with Arabs in Umm el-Fahm, Jaffa and the University of Haifa, with the head of the Israeli Arab umbrella political organization, the mayor of the Negev Beduin city of Rahat and an editor of the largest Israeli Arab newspaper, and every single one, regardless of his politics, totally supported the people in the streets of Cairo.
“For the last four or five days, I’ve been eating, drinking and sleeping Egypt,” said Ahmed Aghbariya, 26, an economics analyst and nominal supporter of the Islamic Movement, shopping at a computer store in Umm el-Fahm, home of the movement’s radical “northern faction.”
“I come home from work at 10 p.m. and turn on the news,” said Faiz Abu Sehiban, mayor of Rahat, run by the Islamic Movement’s relatively moderate “southern faction.”
Arabs are watching CNN and Channels 2 and 10, as well as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.
“The time has come for Arab states and their leaders to learn the lesson of what’s happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and to stop relying on dictatorial power,” said Muhammad Zeidan, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which is to the 1.6 million Israeli Arabs roughly what the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is to American Jewry.
“There is a great need today to instill democratic values throughout the Arab world,” Zeidan said. “If this isn’t done, it’s clear that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt will happen in all the rest of the Arab countries.”
There have been small solidarity demonstrations with hundreds of people in Nazareth and a few Galilee villages, but no major national demonstration is planned, Zeidan said, because Israeli Arabs do not feel comfortable urging Egyptians to risk their lives With one exception, everyone interviewed on Sunday and Monday expected Mubarak to be forced from power in the very near future, even within days, because after 30 years of fear, poverty and hopelessness, the Egyptian public is utterly fed up and determined to overthrow him.
“The situation there has reached a point of no return,” said Muhammad Jabarin, 30, owner of an Umm el-Fahm computer store, and a disenchanted nonvoter in local and national elections.
“This should have happened a long time ago.
Now it’s [Syrian President Bashir] Assad’s and [Jordan’s King] Abdullah’s turn to worry,” said Saraa, 20, an art therapy student at the University of Haifa who, like most Druse, identifies with the Jewish state against its Muslim enemies.
The one interviewee who thought the regime would weather the storm, if only temporarily, was Muhammad Awad, a senior editor of Nazareth-based A-Sinara, the largest-circulation Israeli Arab weekly, which also publishes a website.
“Egypt has totalitarian military rule; it’s not so simple to bring it down. It’s not Tunisia,” said Awad. “I think either Mubarak or [security chief and newly named Vice President Omar] Suleiman will run the country until the September presidential elections, and then there will be changes. They won’t be able to rig that election like they did the others because the world will be watching; there’ll probably be international observers. Maybe they’ll call new parliamentary elections. And if they do, a lot of young people and intellectuals will get elected, not just old men.”
MANY ARABS visit Egypt, and those interviewed brought back only bad impressions of the conditions of life there.
“I was in Egypt in 2000, and the people I talked to seemed so afraid of the Mahabarat, the secret police, that they could barely bring themselves to criticize the government. But the rais, the president? No one would say a word against him,” said Jabarin, the Umm el-Fahm computer store owner.
“I visited Egypt a few times, and it was disgusting the way people were afraid to talk openly,” said Aghbariya, the Umm el-Fahm economics analyst. “There’s no freedom, no money; people with college degrees work in the shuk. There’s so much unemployment and salaries are so low and prices of food so high that people only think about earning enough to feed their families, no more.”
Eating lunch in the cafeteria at the University of Haifa, Ayman Halaila, 30, a master’s student in gerontology from Sakhnin, said he was once in the Red Sea resort town of Taba and met “a guy who had a degree in social work from a university in Cairo, and the best he could do was to be a waiter in a hotel for $120 a month.”
Sitting across from him, Muhammad Sayed Ahmad, 31, a doctoral student in gerontology from Kafr Manda, said that when he visited Cairo, “I saw homeless people living in cemeteries.
And the situation has only gotten worse – the people who used to be poor are now completely destitute, the middle class has become poor, and the rich have gotten richer.”
Guti, the Jaffa cab driver, had the same impression. “I was in Egypt a few times, and you see poverty that’s unimaginable – a whole neighborhood of people bringing containers to get water from the one single pipe that serves everybody. People working full-time jobs for the equivalent of a couple of hundred shekels a month. The police are completely corrupt – you have to bribe them to get across the border from Israel. Egypt makes a tremendous amount of money from tourism, from its natural resources, and the people don’t see any of it. It goes to the elite, to the people with connections.”
Guti is no radical – he’s a traditional Labor supporter. So are Ahmad and Halaila. Yet they, like supporters of the Islamic Movement, want Israel’s valuable ally Mubarak out, and the forces of democracy in.
No one interviewed wanted the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Egyptian opposition party, to take over – not even Islamic Movement supporters. And no one thought they would, either.
“God forbid, let Egypt stay the way it is rather than that,” said Jamal Karawan, 36, an electrician (and Kadima voter) standing outside the Jaffa candy store.
“I don’t support the Muslim Brotherhood for the leadership,” said Rahat Mayor Abu Sehiban.
“They should be represented in the government in proportion to their support in elections, but not as the leaders. The Arab world isn’t eager for a radical Muslim leadership.”
Asked the difference between these Egyptian Islamists and the movement he leads, Abu Sehiban said, “We support two states for two peoples – Israel and a Palestinian state. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood agrees with that.”
Interviewees said the Muslim Brotherhood, because of its size and electoral strength, would and should have an important role in shaping Egyptian policies, but not the decisive one. “They’re not the majority in Egypt, the secular are the majority,” Awad, the editor, pointed out.
This revolt was started by the young and secular; they’re dominating the street protests and telling everyone who’ll listen that theirs is a pluralistic, democratic revolt, not an Islamist one, said interviewees. The single most powerful force in Egypt, the “last word” on who will ascend to power and when, said the Monitoring Committee’s Zeidan, is the army.
Who can replace Mubarak, who has the stature to lead the Middle East’s largest country (80 million people) in a bewildering new era of Arab democracy, is one of the perplexing questions of the protests, and Israeli Arabs are stumped as well.
Jabarin named Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who challenged Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and was jailed for more than three years on evidently trumped-up charges, and is now a prominent voice in the protests.
Karawan, the Jaffa electrician, endorsed the revolt’s current leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. “He’s well known in the world, he has good connections, he can get a lot of American help for the Egyptian people,” he said.
Others said ElBaradei had, over the years, become more of a Westerner than an Egyptian, and Jabarin and Awad said he was seen in much of the Arab world as a “traitor” because of his 2003 report on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons. “A lot of people hold him partly responsible for America going to war in Iraq,” he said.
(However, this is an abjectly misinformed view; ElBaradei’s 2003 report found that Saddam was not developing nuclear weapons, a finding that infuriated the Bush administration, as did ElBaradei’s outspoken opposition to the Iraq war.) However, Israeli Arabs’ first choice for an Arab democratic leader was clearly “none of the above.”
“In the Arab world, there’s no democratic leader,” said Ahmad, the doctoral student at the University of Haifa.
In Jaffa, I told Guti the cab driver that it was surprising to hear Arabs turn so swiftly and contemptuously on Mubarak, to bad-mouth a strong, proud symbol of the Arab world. He replied: “A leader has to be strong, but he also has to be a human being; he has to care about his people.”
And what consequences will a new, democratic regime in Cairo – even if it’s not run by the Muslim Brotherhood – have for Israel, for its relations with its powerful neighbor, for the 32-year-old peace treaty? “Bad ones,” said Aghbariya, the economist in Umm el-Fahm. The more left-wing interviewees agreed. Mubarak is seen by his opponents as Israel’s partner, if not servant, in the repression of Egyptian dissent and the occupation of the Palestinians, and the new regime, whoever runs it, will be decidedly less amiable toward the Jewish state.
“The change will bring the Egyptian government closer to the Palestinians. The new government will be against the siege of Gaza.
There were a lot of demonstrations in Egypt against Mubarak’s cooperation with the siege,” noted Rahat’s Abu Sehiban.
“This is one of the things that made Egyptians so angry at Mubarak – he enforced the siege even more than Israel did. He didn’t let medicines enter Gaza from Egypt, he didn’t care that people in Gaza were starving,” said Jabarin.
“Israel, like the US, made a huge mistake in backing Mubarak’s repression of dissent. They have reason to worry now about the consequences,” said the Monitoring Committee’s Zeidan.
He said the extent of the “boomerang” will depend on how the regime responds to the continued mass demonstrations. “If there is a crackdown, if there is bloodshed, the people will hold not only Mubarak but also Israel and the US responsible, and the desire for revenge could reach beyond Egypt’s borders.”
Could Israel mend its relations with the Egyptian public by transferring its support from Mubarak to the opposition? “It’s too late,” said Zeidan. “Israel’s position is clear: for Mubarak, against the Egyptian people.”
However, most of those interviewed said the 1979 peace treaty would hold, that it’s enshrined internationally, that the Egyptians don’t want to alienate the entire Western world, and they don’t want war with Israel, either.
“The peace with Egypt is a cold peace, and it’ll stay that way,” said Abu Sehiban. “The relations won’t go back to the way they were before the peace treaty, to the days of war. It’ll be like Israel’s relations with Mauritania, let’s say.”
The Islamic Movement leader went so far as to say that if a new Egyptian government trashed the peace treaty, he would oppose that government.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood joins the new government, they have to honor the peace with Israel. We’re tired of war. If they uphold the peace treaty, ahlan wa sahlan, welcome. If not, we won’t support them,” said the Rahat mayor.
A final point of agreement among those interviewed was that while the Egyptian revolt would spread to other Arab countries, it would not spread to Israeli Arabs. In Galilee, the Negev and “mixed” cities, Arabs are cheering the Middle East’s upheaval from the sidelines.
Unlike their brethren, Arabs are a minority at home. They have much greater democratic rights and, on the whole, a higher standard of living, but they also suffer from inequality precisely because of their nationality. They live in the Middle East’s only democratic country – so far – but it doesn’t belong to them like Arab countries belong to their Arab citizens. They have much more freedom than the 350 million other Arabs in the region but much less potential power.
“Our situation here is different,” said Jabarin, “fundamentally different.”