Fundamentally Freund: This is not 1776

Jeffersonian-style democracy isn’t about to flourish throughout the region. We need to get a grip.

iran revolution rally 311 (photo credit: AP)
iran revolution rally 311
(photo credit: AP)
As the revolt against tyranny spreads across the Middle East, shaking the very foundations of the Arab political order, it appears as if we are at the doorstep of a new and uncharted world.
Old certainties, like the sands of Arabia, are rapidly being swept away, leaving Israel and the West peering into a potential vacuum of insecurity and doubt.
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The thought of the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power in Egypt, or radical Islamists seizing control of Jordan or Yemen, is enough to make even the most sober analysts reach for some Johnnie Walker.
Just think about it: The entire strategic balance in the region could easily come unhinged if forces hostile to the US and its allies gain greater clout thanks to the popular unrest.
Democracy, of course, is still the best system invented by mankind, so it is only natural that many wish to cheer on the protesters and see them prevail. After all, why should Libyans have to chafe under the quixotic rule of crazy Muammar Gaddafi, or Qataris be forced to submit to the whims of their eccentric emir? But democracy also has its flaws, and chief among them is the fact that the people have the right to be wrong, and to choose the worst possible leaders.
It is eminently conceivable that if given the chance, millions of newly-emancipated Muslim voters might do just that by pulling the lever for extreme fundamentalists.
This is more than just nervous hand-wringing. Consider the findings of a survey released in December by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, which found widespread support in a number of Arab countries for terrorist groups and suicide bombings. In Jordan, which has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1994, a whopping 60 percent of those polled said they had a favorable view of Hamas; 55% felt the same about Hezbollah, and more than a third expressed a positive opinion about al-Qaida.
The fact that these organizations live to kill, and do not hesitate to spill the blood of the innocent doesn’t seem to bother Jordanians all that much. If given the chance, whom do you think they would vote for?
And in Egypt, which has been at peace with Israel for three decades, the situation is only marginally better. Just under half – 49% – of all Muslims in Egypt say they look kindly on Hamas, while 30% back Hezbollah and 20% have a positive opinion of Al-Qaida. That doesn’t exactly sound like a good basis on which to build a liberal, Western-style democracy.
When it comes to support for suicide bombings, the picture is equally distressing. Twenty percent of Egyptians and Jordanians, and 39% of Lebanese, said such atrocities are often or sometimes justified.
That may not sound like a lot, but Egypt’s population is over 80 million, which means that some 16 million do not have sufficient moral qualms to reject the barbarity of suicide attacks.
HOWEVER MUCH we might want to believe that deep down all people are the same, and that if only we could reason with them we would join hands and sing the chorus to “We Are the World,” that is not going to happen any time soon.
So we need to stop fooling ourselves into thinking this is 1776, and that Jeffersonian-style democracy is about to flourish throughout the region. It isn’t.
Millions of our neighbors might be longing for freedom, but many of them also wish to toss us into the sea.
The truth is that there is not much that Israel can do in the current situation, other than to keep its eyes and ears open and prepare for any eventuality. But one thing we can certainly do is to exploit what is happening to improve our standing in the world.
The contrast between the region’s sole democracy and its assortment of monarchies, autocracies, sultanates and emirates is stark and undeniable. Instead of maintaining what amounts to radio silence about the events unfolding around us, the government should be pressing hard to underline the vast differences between Israel and its neighbors.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu highlighted this point at the beginning of the month, when he told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “we are an island of stability in the region.”
But much more needs to be done.
The message we should be disseminating, as the world’s attention is tuned to our area, is quite simple. We have built a vibrant and free society on the shifting sands of the Middle East, while our neighbors have not.
We have given unprecedented freedom to Jew, Christian and Arab alike to voice their opinions, pray as they wish and vote for whomever they choose. We earnestly seek peace, and do not back terror – state-sponsored or otherwise.
Until the time comes when our neighbors can honestly say the same, the Middle East will continue to simmer.