No such thing as black and white with Egypt

"A democratic Egypt will sustain peace with Israel." While this seems like a fair judgment, over-optimists need to be aware that as Europe's thriving democracies demonstrate, democracy can never provide an absolute panacea.

egypt tahrir square 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
egypt tahrir square 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
For weeks, the media have been filled with commentary about the revolution in Egypt, and most of it seems to fall squarely into two camps. One camp says it’s a disaster for Israel, a process bound to end with a hostile, radicalized neighbor on our southern border. The other camp is certain democracy will take root next door and be a boon to peace and regional stability: After all, don’t we know democracies don’t make war on each other? Yet both these black-and-white views strike me as simplistic.
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Those who foresee catastrophe clearly have grounds for concern. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often cites the precedent of Iran’s 1979 revolution, which was started by secular democrats but then hijacked by Islamic extremists after it succeeded, largely because they were by far the best-organized opposition group. Since the Muslim Brotherhood is similarly the only organized opposition in Egypt, it could presumably replicate Iran’s experience if it so desired.
But the bigger danger, to my mind, is the Lebanese precedent. The Muslim Brotherhood has already announced that it will neither run a presidential candidate nor try to capture a parliamentary majority. That indicates that its model is Hizbullah - which also controls neither the Lebanese presidency nor a parliamentary majority, but nevertheless effectively controls both the government and the country.
Hizbullah has wreaked havoc in Israel with military capabilities that are negligible compared to Egypt’s; the thought of what the incomparably bigger and better-equipped Egyptian army could do if unleashed is terrifying. But a hostile government in Cairo wouldn’t even need to launch all-out war: A steady flow of sophisticated arms to Hamas in Gaza, combined with regular terrorist infiltrations along the huge, wide-open Israel-Egypt border, could wreak havoc enough.
Yet this justified fear over former president Hosni Mubarak’s fall in itself proves the other side’s point: If Israel is ever to know a stable, long-term peace, in which a new government isn’t cause for panic, only democracy can provide it. It usually takes a revolution to oust an autocrat, and revolutions often throw out the old regime’s policies wholesale; that’s precisely why Egypt’s peace with Israel now seems at risk. Democratic governments, in contrast, generally honor their predecessors’ agreements.
Moreover, all tyrants keep power in part by diverting public outrage toward an outside enemy, and Mubarak was no exception: His government and his state-controlled media kept up a relentless drumbeat of the most vicious anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement, and dissenters from this line faced severe sanctions. Yet even under these conditions, a few bold individuals spoke out in favor of normalization with Israel. A democratic Egypt with a free press would presumably enable more such voices to be heard, and thus reduce anti-Israel sentiment in the long run.
Finally, democratic governments must be at least somewhat responsive to the people’s needs, and most people’s top priorities are bread-and-butter issues like jobs and housing. Iranians, for instance, were infuriated when their president pledged $450 million to Hizbullah in October, saying the money ought to be spent on urgent domestic needs. In a democratic Egypt, even an anti-Israel one, voters are likely to view investing in the domestic economy as higher priority than sending high-tech arms to Hamas.
As Natan Sharansky has repeatedly pointed out, elections alone do not a democracy make, so if the West really wants to see democracy take root in Egypt, it needs to invest in preparing the institutional groundwork properly - something too many of his fellow enthusiasts tend to forget. But if real democracy could take root, then for all the above reasons, say the optimists, it would clearly be good for Israel.
And indeed it might. But then again, maybe not: Democracy, after all, is no guarantee of pro-Israel sentiment. Just look at Europe - a flourishing democracy with a completely free press that is often no less viciously anti-Israel and anti-Semitic than Mubarak’s was. The Independent in Britain, for instance, famously ran a cartoon depicting then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a baby, and Britain’s Political Cartoon Society subsequently voted it best cartoon of the year.
Moreover, public opinion polls repeatedly show overwhelming anti-Israel sentiment. A poll in Germany last year, for instance, found that 57% of respondents thought Israel was waging “a war of annihilation” against the Palestinians, 40% thought Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was “basically no different from what the Nazis did with the Jews,” and 38% thought Israel’s politics made it “easy to see why one would have something against Jews.”
Granted, despite all this anti-Israel sentiment, there’s no constituency in Europe for going to war against Israel. But then, there’s no constituency in Europe for going to war against anyone: Even in places where Europe is fighting, like Afghanistan, governments have generally sent troops despite overwhelming public opposition. That’s because modern-day Europe has a very strong strain of ideological pacifism.
But no comparable commitment to pacifism exists anywhere in the Arab world. Thus it’s far from certain that a democratic Egypt wouldn’t go to war against Israel if anti-Israel sentiment there ran as high as it does in Europe. I certainly wouldn’t recommend betting the country’s future on it.
So is there any bottom line that can be drawn from all this? At this stage, no one honestly knows how Egypt will turn out; the only thing certain is that the change holds genuine potential for both good and evil. For policy-makers to close their eyes to either possibility would therefore be a grave mistake.    
The writer is a journalist and commentator.