The counsels of prudence

Only a puerile and superficial enthusiasm would urge us to blindly embrace change which may endanger the peace.

Thomas Friedman recently took time out from his Cairo reportage for The New York Times to castigate Israel for not urging the American administration to hasten the departure of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, after all, made Egypt’s American alliance and its peace treaty with Israel the cornerstones of his foreign policy.
One could wish that Friedman’s enthusiasm for democracy in the Arab world were consistent and principled.
If it were, he might have warned – as some Israelis did – against importing Yasser Arafat and the PLO to the West Bank in the 1990s. He might have shared my shock and foreboding on hearing our leaders justify this imposition by arguing that Arafat would “keep order, without bothering with courts or civil rights organizations.” He would not have been surprised, as I was not, when the argument proved false and the bright hopes of Oslo led to war and terror.
Liberal political culture involves a commitment to democracy and peace. Where the former is fragile, the latter is likely to be as well. When liberal democracies sign peace treaties with countries in which the future of democratic culture is uncertain, they must do so with trepidation. Like democrats everywhere, I wish for the Egyptian people to enjoy the blessings of liberty, and hope their popular revolution leads to it. But I do not delude myself into thinking the path is either quick or certain.
Democratic transitions tend to be the work of generations.
They often involve episodes of backsliding into aggressive authoritarianism. I well remember the hope and enthusiasm that greeted the dawn of democracy in my native USSR 20 years ago. Many of those hopes have been dashed, yet we will be lucky if whatever regime emerges in Egypt serves the Egyptian people’s interest in peace equally well.
THE PAST month’s events in Egypt are not “unprecedented” in the Middle East, as Friedman claims. They share parallels with events in Tehran 31 years ago, and in Beirut five years ago, though there are differences.
In Tehran, street demonstrations brought down an unpopular leader. Then, too, popular revolution was accompanied by paroxysms of enthusiasm on the part of foreign observers, who thought Iranian politics began and ended with what they observed in the streets. The major difference is that in his fall, the shah took all of Iran’s conservative, pro-Western institutions. For a while the Iranian political arena bubbled with transient forces. Then the new political hegemon took over, and the region and the world have regretted it ever since.
In Beirut, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution forced out a foreign occupier and seemed to restore the country’s democratic sovereignty. Liberal, pro-Western forces seemed ready to lead. Then, too, popular revolution was accompanied by great enthusiasm on the part of foreign observers. How poignant Lebanon’s tragedy is today. Fear, not freedom, guides its parliament as it votes to resume the yoke of its oppressors.
The Lebanese army, once touted as the counterpoise to Hezbollah, has become its proxy.
THE EGYPTIAN people’s uprising creates hope for the eventual emergence of democracy, but also opens the door for demagogues who, as in Iran and Lebanon, will fan hatred and fanaticism and try to ride them to power.
I would have expected Friedman, instead of singling out my government for criticism, to call on all liberal democratic regimes to aid in promoting tolerance and peace in the newly liberated Egyptian polity. Without such values, neither peace nor democracy will survive.
Will Egypt’s army retain control? Will it use that control to advance or derail a revolutionary agenda? Will it lose control and let Egypt slip into an abyss like that which engulfed Tehran 30 years ago? I do not know. By his own admission, Friedman doesn’t know either. He can only wield influence without responsibility, condemning those who decline to join in his transports of enthusiasm as “out-of-touch, in-bred and unimaginative.” He advises my government to embrace Egypt’s uncertainty as a good thing because it may lead to a positive outcome. But as the Egyptian crisis came to a close, the positions of my government and the US administration became parallel. Both heard the assurances of Egypt’s Higher Army Council regarding the stability of the peace treaty with relief.
Friedman wonders how Israel’s government can point out the strength of its own democracy while treating the possible emergence of democracy in Egypt with caution. Serious reflection will reveal that democracy here and in Egypt are profoundly different.
Our reconstituted national institutions, beginning with the Zionist movement in 1897, have been democratic since their inception. Democracy is bred in our bone; divided by political and cultural differences, we have developed tolerance for different opinions (albeit sometimes grudging tolerance) over several generations. Our democracy is based on a firm foundation of social and political capital that no other people in the region can equal.
The foundations of our commitment to liberty and democracy are, equally, the foundations of our abhorrence of war. When nations make peace with us and sign a treaty to that effect, they know our people will not permit the violation of that treaty. In that sense, we are indeed different, but the difference may not be evident to one who confines his vision toTahrir Square.
Publicists who bear no responsibility for the conduct of their nation’s policies can afford to let their enthusiasms color their writing. Elected representatives, who bear responsibility for the welfare of their people, enjoy no such luxury. They must take the counsels of prudence.
Only a puerile and superficial enthusiasm would urge us to blindly embrace a change which may endanger the peace the Middle East has already achieved – with such difficulty and at such cost – merely because it may yield a positive future result.
It is far wiser, as the American administration has found, to try to ensure that the changes in Egypt are accompanied by elements of stability that help secure peace. This has been my government’s policy as well.

The writer is minister of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs. This article was first published by the Huffington Post in Shai Baitel’s column.