Israelis watch ‘Arab Spring,’ with fingers crossed

Since Dec. 18, 2010, when the first rebellion in the Middle East erupted in Tunisia — causing a chain reaction called the Arab Spring — Israelis were following the unfolding events with perplexity. Watching the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria chanting “The people want to bring down the regime,” many in Israel have been wondering: Is this a step towards the true democratization of the Arab world, or will it only cause chaos, instability, more repression, or the rise of radical Islam?

Looking at this from an Israeli perspective only might sound too narrow, and maybe even condescending, but being the only democracy in the Middle East gives us some vantage point.

On the theoretical level, of course, the Arab Spring is a blessing. For too long the people of the Middle East and North Africa have been suffering under tyrannical regimes. Now, when they have discovered the power of social media, they have probably found a way to break away from their shackles.

If the Arab states become democracies, then maybe the vision of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant will come true, namely, that democracies, which are not warmongers by nature, will live with each other in a “perpetual peace.”

Israelis want nothing more than to be surrounded by democracies. Assuming that good old Kant was right, just think about the potential of this region if instead of investing huge sums of money in weapon systems and wars, all this fortune would be funneled into higher education, healthcare and leisure. And Arabs and Israelis would then go into each other’s territory not on a military raid, but in tourist buses.

The question, again, is whether the Arab Spring is leading the Middle East towards democracy, because pulling down the regime is not enough.

Almost 10 years ago, the United Nations published a survey prepared by distinguished Arab scholars, titled Arab Human Development Report. After specifying some progress, the report, in the words of its authors, “makes it clear how much still needs to be done to provide current and future generations with the political voice, social choices and economic opportunities they need to build a better future for themselves and their families.

“It notes that quantitative improvements in health and education have not yet reached all citizens, and finds that too often expansion of services has not been matched by needed qualitative improvements in their delivery.

“It underlines how far the Arab states still need to go in order to join the global information society and economy as full partners, and to tackle the human and economic scourge of joblessness, which afflicts Arab countries as a group more seriously than any other developing region. And it clearly outlines the challenges for Arab states in terms of strengthening personal freedoms and boosting broad-based citizen participation in political and economic affairs.”

Excuse the long citation, but this is truly the crux of the matter. If the Arab people, who dared pull down their dictatorial regimes, were now to find themselves helpless again, because of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and lack of civic society, would they not become easy prey for radical Islam? For that kind of extremism flourishes precisely on the hotbed of social despair.

So as far as Israel is concerned, this is the paradox: If embryonic democracy emerges, say, in Egypt, and there are totally free elections, it is not unthinkable that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over.

Once in power, overwhelmed by the socioeconomic challenges, these Islamic radicals will have to use an iron fist to stay in power (see Hamas in Gaza). And then, if not before, they will direct the rage of the people against the usual suspect: Israel. At least, with an authoritarian ruler like Mubarak, we knew exactly where we stood.

I’m not sure Immanuel Kant had the Middle East in mind when he wrote his treatise more than two centuries ago. In the meantime, the Arab Spring is now approaching the Arab Fall. Israelis are watching this with caution.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.