So, the Pharaoh is gone

Hosni Mubarak was last seen in Sharm el-Sheikh and may soon be on his way out of the country. His son Gamal has been neutralized (for now). The army says it is in control and will move the country to democracy — but by the time of this writing it has not yet met with the true leaders of the uprising. What happens next?

The jockeying for control has hardly even begun. The army may claim the role of guarantor of transition to democracy, but real democracy will put the dramatic privileges of army officers on the line. Anyone who has taken a taxi to Cairo airport has seen facades of the beautiful country clubs and social clubs for elite officers that line Al Uruba Street, a very public advertisement to attract talented young Egyptian men to the officer corps. And the army establishment not only benefits from a military-industrial complex in the defense industry, it gets rich producing consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals, among other goods. They make a very good living, and there is no public oversight to their businesses.

Where is the money in Egypt? It is mostly in government, which is intimately tied to business. In a wonderful scene from the novel by Alaa Al Aswany, “The Yacoubian Building” (published in Arabic in 2002, English translation 2004 and now also a movie), a wealthy car dealer wishes to break into the business elite. His ticket is parliament, to which he manages to be selected in a rigged public election by paying off the “Big Man.”

Shortly after my family moved to Cairo in 2006 for a sabbatical, a ship ferrying returnees from the Hajj to Mecca sank, killing more than 1,000 passengers. It had been cited a number of times for being unseaworthy. Two years later, its owner, a member of parliament, was acquitted of all charges by an Egyptian court.

The government controls the media. Yes, there are (official) opposition newspapers, but they are carefully monitored and are shut down when they go beyond the margins of news and analysis acceptable to government. Here is a joke we heard in Egypt: What is the news every day? Top headline: “Mubarak greets such-and-such dignitary who visits our blessed nation.” Second article: “Israel commits yet another heinous crime.” The remainder of the paper: the weather.

Yes, Mubarak’s government has kept to the strict requirements of Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel but has undermined it by publishing lies and slander about Israel for decades, by monitoring and harassing Egyptians who dare to visit Israel, and even threatening Egyptians who might wish to visit the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo.

The revolt toppled the man Egyptians have been calling the Pharaoh, but the revolution is far from over. The good news is that the Egyptian people are a wonderful people. They really want to end corruption; they want the freedom to speak their mind and to read and view media that are not controlled by government. They want to vote their leaders into office and they want a chance to engage in the economy and a civil society freely and fairly. And the overwhelming majority wants these as believing Muslims.

That looks like democracy to me, and we, the greatest democracy in human history, need to support the process. Israel, too, can benefit enormously by actively supporting the Egyptian people’s desire for democracy. Yes, democracy is messy. There will be individuals and perhaps parties that will call for the destruction of Israel. And there will also be individuals and parties that will call for better ties with Israel. With a free press and free speech where Israel and its supporters (yes, supporters in the Arab world, too) can make an honest case in the public sphere, we will see a significant reduction in anti-Israel sentiment in the Muslim world.

But this is unlikely without Israel doing its share. It needs immediately to move forward on the two-state solution. That is a solution waiting to happen, and Bernard Avishai has shown in his recent article in the New York Times Magazine just how close Israel and Palestine were to making it come about.  

The Egyptians are a clever people. They know a good thing when they see it, and a bad thing as well. That is why they will not go the way of Iran despite calls in some quarters for “Islamic government.” They see the three Islamist countries of the Middle East — Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — and they are not fooled. All are oppressive, dictatorial states that care little for the welfare of their own citizens. They are failed states, held together by brutal regimes propped up at the expense of the lives and spirit of their own people. The Egyptians have been there, done that.

The Egyptian people do not want to go the way of Iran. But if they are not encouraged with material as well as moral support in developing a real democracy, we may see them being sucked into the most obvious alternative.

Reuen Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California (