Rattling the Cage: Enemy of Arab democracy – that’s us

By backing Mubarak’s fight for political survival against the mass movement for democracy, we’ve done something that’s both morally wrong and politically very stupid.

egypt protests gallery8_521 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
egypt protests gallery8_521
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Obviously, there is a risk for Israel in the Egyptian revolt – the risk that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over. With this in mind, the Netanyahu government, together with most of the public and media, is backing the status quo, the Mubarak regime, our friend (or, at any rate, the Islamists’ enemy).
But because this society suffers from a fortress mentality, because we are ruled by fear, we thought only of the risks of losing our friend in Cairo before desperately taking his side. Because we are ruled by fear, we didn’t also think of the risks of sticking with the tyrant against his victims shouting for freedom and a decent standard of living.
The result is that Israel has made a terrible blunder, we’re paying a high price for it and the price is going to rise. By backing Mubarak’s fight for political survival against the mass movement for democracy, we’ve done something that’s both morally wrong and politically very stupid.
Until a week ago, there was nothing wrong, morally or politically, about our alliance with the Egyptian dictator. The only alternative over there seemed to be the Muslim Brotherhood, which is no more democratic than Mubarak, but which is considerably less friendly to Israel, so, in the seeming absence of a viable democratic opposition, we stuck with the friendly, if tyrannical, regime.
Fair enough. But in the last week, there has appeared in Egypt something that, at the very least, is vivid sign of a viable democratic opposition. If what we’ve seen in the last week is not the dawn of Arab democracy, then what would be?
And in response, Israel, which proclaims from morning til night how much it believes in democracy, how much it prays that democracy will one day come to the Muslim world, is saying, pretty much in one voice, nyet. We don’t trust it. It’s a trap. Don’t believe those millions of people singing for democracy, the terrorists are right behind them, the terrorists will take over. Only Mubarak can stop them. We’re with Mubarak.
This has been a moment of truth for Israel. By opposing what is by far the greatest, most powerful demonstration for democracy in Arab history, we’ve made it clear that we will never support Arab democracy. Never, that is, unless it arrives fully completed, in perfect stability, with an up-and-running, Western-style justice system and elections fought out between Arab versions of Republicans and Democrats, or, better yet, of Likud and Israel Beiteinu. In other words, an Arab democracy that involves zero risk, zero uncertainty, for us.
Until then, nyet.
IN THE moment of truth, this country sided with tyranny over democracy. By staying loyal to Mubarak, we betrayed the best part of ourselves.
So much for the morality of Israel’s position. Politically, we’ve backed the losing side. If the Mubarak regime doesn’t go now, it’ll go soon enough. Meanwhile, the whole world is against him – except us. Us, and the other “moderate” Arab dictatorships. Among the democracies, we are alone. With Egypt dominating world news, we couldn’t be more conspicuous. And for what? It’s one thing to take a lonely stand for a noble cause, but for an ignoble one? Morally wrong and politically stupid, that’s how we’ve played this one.
And the more change comes to Egypt, the more the West will side with it – and the more our lonely opposition will stand out. And the more we will be isolated politically. And the more the new, post-Mubarak leaders of Egypt will despise us.
I imagine that very soon, our leaders will try to cut Israel’s losses by throwing their support to the Egyptian opposition and wishing them well on a democratic future. It’ll ring a little hollow, though. Israeli foreign policy this week has been a historic march of folly, and it will be remembered even when, not long from now, we will be pretending it never happened.
But wait a minute – we have a right to be afraid of the upheaval we’re seeing on TV, don’t we? The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest, strongest opposition party in Egypt, isn’t it? We’ve seen revolutions go wrong in the Middle East, haven’t we?
Oh, yes. We have reason for fear, we have reason for cynicism. But we do not have reason to be only fearful and cynical. We do not have reason for reflexively blocking out all colors in the picture from Egypt except black. There are reasons for optimism, too, there are reasons to believe that Egypt will not turn into an Islamic dictatorship that will threaten Israel’s existence.
For one, the dominant power in Egypt is not the Muslim Brotherhood, but the army, and the Egyptian army does not want to come under the heel of the fanatics. It does not want to go to war with Israel, either, or trash the peace treaty. It does not want to lose the $1.5 billion a year it gets from the US, which would evaporate as soon as any Egyptian government, secular or Islamist, tried to tear up that treaty.
Second, the revolt seems to have been motivated at least as much by the Egyptians’ economic misery as by their desire for freedom. Which path offers them more economic promise – the path of Western-aligned democracy or Islamism? I heard a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman on the BBC saying Egypt doesn’t need its $12 billion-a-year tourist industry (which attracts all these drunken, half-naked infidels), it can shut the hotels down and just build more farms and factories. As poor as Egyptians are, the Muslim Brotherhood proposes to make them substantially poorer. With the West’s arms now outstretched to Egypt, I wouldn’t bet on the Islamists.
But what about the lessons of history? Binyamin Netanyahu, who knows his history, has cited the 1917 Russian revolution and 1979 Iranian revolution, both of which started as liberal reform movements, and both of which were soon taken over by communists and jihadists, respectively. With the Muslim Brotherhood lurking in the background, and with their being no precedent, no example of a democratic Arab country, isn’t the Egyptian revolt ripe for the taking by the worst people and ideas?
No. The Russian and Iranian revolutions don’t apply to the Egyptian upheaval of 2011. In 1917, communism was an untried system of government, so Lenin and his comrades didn’t have to run on their record. The same goes for the Islamic Revolution and Khomeini in 1979. Today, both communism and the Islamic Revolution stand as failures that offer mainly political repression and economic stagnation – exactly the things the Egyptians want to throw off.
The system they’re calling for – democracy – has a record that’s not a failure, that’s quite a success. Trying to gauge the future in Egypt, the precedents of Eastern Europe in 1989 would seem to be, if not predictive, then at least as instructive as those of 1917 Russia and 1979 Iran.
FURTHER ON our tendency to see only black when it comes to Arabs, I want to correct an inaccurately reported public opinion poll from Egypt that’s being cited frequently here, and add some of the poll results that aren’t being reported. We’re reading that the most recent Pew Research Center poll on Egyptian attitudes found that 59 percent of the public identifies with the Islamists and only 27% with the “modernizers.”
In fact, that was the breakdown within the minority of Egyptians – 31% – who told Pew that there’s a struggle in their country between Islamists and modernizers. The majority who said there isn’t a struggle – 61% – weren’t asked which side they support.
One question all the Egyptian respondents were asked was what they thought about Islamic extremism, and 61% said they were concerned or very concerned about it in their country, while 70% said they were concerned or very concerned about it in the world at large. Another question that went to all respondents was about democracy, and 59% of the Egyptians polled said it was preferable to any other form of government, with 22% saying that “in some conditions,” an undemocratic system “can” be preferable.
The Pew poll was taken in April and May of last year. I think it’s fair to assume that today, the numbers in Egypt for democracy and “modernizers” would be appreciably higher.
One more correction: It’s not just naïve liberals and starry-eyed Obamaphiles who believe democracy can win in Egypt and are pushing for Mubarak to fall. There’s a team of American liberals and neoconservatives called the Working Group on Egypt that’s saying just that, and the neocons on it include Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan, who are as pro-Israel and anti-“axis-of-evil” as they come.
The group just came out with a statement calling on Obama to suspend all aid to Egypt unless the regime agrees to hold “free and fair elections as soon as possible,” to allow domestic and foreign election observers to work unhindered and to free political prisoners.
“The great fear that people have with Islamist parties is that if they take part in an election, that will be the last election. But we over-learned that lesson and we need to get beyond that panicky response,” said Robert Kagan, a cofounder of the group and possibly the premier neoconservative foreign policy thinker, to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “What are we going to do – support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don’t want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East? We’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.”
Israel lost American Jewish liberals a good while ago, but on Egypt we’re even losing American Jewish neocons, for God’s sake. We’ve come to a new low. The only democracy in the Middle East has declared itself to be the enemy of democracy anywhere else in the Middle East.
When I look at Egypt today, I’m somewhat worried, but mainly hopeful. When I look at Israel, at Israeli political attitudes, at the Israeli worldview, it’s a struggle to see anything but black.