Israel, Egypt and the ‘F’ Word

Israelis and their supporters are wondering whether the uprising in Egypt is good for Israel.  They want to know: Will it bring a radical Muslim government to power?  Will outgoing strongman Hosni Mubarak’s replacement stick by the country’s treaties with Israel? Will a new Egypt keep supplying Israel with natural gas?  Will a new Egypt cooperate to stop Hamas terrorists in Gaza from attacking Israel?

The fearmongerers and fatalists are already at the megaphones.  Pro-Israel Web sites are full of well-recycled gotcha quotes from Mohammed El Baradei, Egypt’s apparent next leader, “proving” that he has it in for Israel.  Overnight, the same people who have long pointed to the cold peace with Egypt as Exhibit A for why Israel shouldn’t cede an inch of land to any Arab government are now rushing to defend Mubarak as a stalwart ally.

Meanwhile, Israel’s official response has been first silence, then a strident call for stability, which can easily be understood to mean support for the current regime.

What’s going on? A massive, heartfelt liberation sweeps through the most populous Arab country in the world, with the prospect of rescuing future generations from drowning in oppression and stagnation.  The Arab street cries freedom, and what do we cry?  Oy!

True, the uprising is chaotic and messy, its potential outcomes treacherous.  But what did we expect?  We paid for stability with billions of dollars.  The Egyptians paid for it with repression, fear, torture and corruption.  We got peace, they got blood on prison walls.  How long did we think that was going to last?  Fascism fell, Communism fell. Anybody who believed the screw wouldn’t eventually turn in the Middle East doesn’t think much of history, or of Arabs.

“That the pursuit of Arab peace came at the expense of Arab democracy is nothing new,” Shadi Hamid wrote in a long, prescient article about Egypt in the journal Democracy just last month.

“In short, the pursuit of peace came to depend on prevailing authoritarian structures. Unless autocracy can be made permanent–and there is little reason to think that it can–this state of affairs is unsustainable.”

How did the geniuses at Council of Foreign Relations and the State Department and Mossad think it was going to end?  That Mubarak was going to wake up one day and decide unlimited power, privilege and wealth were just not his thing after all?  Mubarak’s paralysis in the face of the demonstrations proves that he knew well what it took his “good friend” Hillary Clinton so long to fathom: his people despise him.  One Cairo protester I saw on CNN held up a sign that said it all:

Mubarak you must get it we hate you.

And liberation is messy. The movie version, the one Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney promised us would play out in Baghdad, involves half-tracks and daisies, candy for the children and gallows for the bad guys.  That is fantasy.

We Jews know better.  Think of the Allied victory in World War II: What lay ahead for the peoples of Europe were limbo and violence.

“It was a time without structure or form,” William I.  Hitchcock wrote in “The Bitter Road to Freedom,” “a time of uncertainty, fear and loss.”

But just because we have no right to expect the best, there’s no reason to fear the worst (other than the fact that, of course, we’re Jews).  The Egyptian uprising is hate-fueled but hope-filled.

“I urge you to look at the positive aspect of what’s going on,”  Egyptian-born columnist Mona Eltahawy pleaded with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.  “This is a peaceful uprising that wants freedom and dignity for the Egyptian people. This is an internal Egyptian issue.”

In other words: It’s not about us.  Yes, there have been images of protesters holding portraits of Mubarak with a Star of David scrawled onto his forehead. But, fundamentally, this uprising, as in Tunisia, as in nascent protests in Jordan, Yemen and other Arab lands, is about freedom.

Is that so terrible?  Terrifying, maybe, but terrible?  We Jews celebrate freedom in our central narrative, Passover.  We understand through the story of the Exodus that freedom is borne of a measure of chaos and uncertainty—the death of the firstborn,  Pharaoh’s change of heart, all those frogs and boils.  But we also understand that it is not just the Jewish story, it is the human story—it is human destiny.

How dare we, in our response to the courageous, suffering people of Egypt, turn freedom into the F word.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement calling on Western governments to preserve stability in Egypt: “The peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted for more than three decades, and our objective is to ensure that these relations will continue to exist,” Netanyahu said. “We are closely monitoring events in Egypt and the region and are making efforts to preserve its security and stability.” It’s true. Stability is critical in the Middle East, and for Israel, but it can’t be had at the expense of human dignity.  Otherwise it is a false stability.  Now Israel has to secure its peace not just with some man who claims to represent Egypt, but with Egyptians.

The more insightful comment came from the man who may be the next leader of Egypt, Mohamed El Baradei.  Speaking to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about the protests, El Baradei said, “That’s what you get after 30 years of brutal dictatorship in the name of stability.”

The worse case scenario for Israel is for an anti-Israel regime to take power and decide it wants to undo Egypt’s international obligations, forgo billions in foreign aid and investment and start a war with a far more powerful neighbor instead of delivering on promises for economic growth to the masses.

The best case scenario is for Egypt to transition to a national unity government, institute free and fair elections, develop a far less corrupt and freer economy, and find a working partnership with its neighbor Israel and her powerful ally.  This scenario is the “Roadmap to Peace” that Israel and her friends need to support.

Jews’ key concern comes down to the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the first myths the uprising destroyed, according to El Baradei and others, was that only Mubarak’s iron rule kept the overwhelming force of Islamic extremism at bay.

“If given an array of choices, I believe that the Egyptian people will choose a democratic future of freedom and not an Islamist future of imposed extremism,” former Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley wrote this week in The Washington Post. “While the Muslim Brotherhood, if legalized, would certainly win seats in a new parliament, there is every likelihood that the next Egyptian government will not be a Muslim Brotherhood government but a non-Islamist one committed to building a free and democratic Egypt.”

Ben-Gurion University Professor Yoram Meital, an Egypt expert, affirmed Hadley’s outlook. A victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, should not be seen as a foregone conclusion.

“While they dominated the opposition under Mubarak’s draconian regime,” Meital said, “a more open political system could engender a different kind of politics.”

I don’t believe democracy will turn the Muslim Brotherhood into the Temple Sisterhood.  But there’s every indication that largely secular Egyptians didn’t just risk their lives and their future only to turn their country over to a new oppressor. Yasser Ghoname, an American-educated Egyptian judge, told me that nothing in Egyptian culture or history indicates they’d accept an Iranian or Saudi Arabian lifestyle.

There’s no indication that Egyptians threw off oppression in order to re-fight a war with Israel.

“The last 30 years the only good thing Mubarak did is keeping peace with Israel,” Ghoname told me.  “This generation is the peace generation.”

Popular anger over the Israeli-Egyptian peace, Ghoname said, arose mostly from the fact that the prosperity promised as a peace dividend accrued only to the Israelis and to Mubarak and his cronies.

“Lately, the Egyptians started to think, what is the different between peace and war if most of the Egyptians live the same kind of life as in Gaza?” Ghoname said.

It will be an adjustment for Israel, dealing with parliaments rather than dictators.  One implication is that the Arab street will have even more impact on Arab leaders, who will actually be accountable to their people.  If a free Egypt allows a truly free press, that means Israel will be able to make a better case for itself directly to the Egyptian people.  It means that cynical Arab dictators will no longer be able to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a smokescreen for their own shortcomings.  If anything,  the uprising disproves the idea that Israel was the cause of Arab anger.  That’s the upside.

The challenge is that Israel won’t be able to rely on the force of a single autocrat to bypass Egyptian popular opinion. Those voters may decide on policies that would force Israel to choose between continued occupation of 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank or fully normalized relations with the most populous Arab nation on earth.  Israel, which always prided itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East,  may have to rush to keep up.

Cry “Oy” all you want, but look what just happened: a massive democratic revolution rocked the heart of the Arab world. The men and woman who carried it off did so without violence, without suicide bombs, without calls for jihad or massive “Death to America!” demonstrations.  Look at that, and take a little heart.

In the long run, for all its potential dangers and risks, this uprising may well provide more true stability for Israel and the region. This was the point of George W. Bush’s democratization policy and the thrust of Barack Obama’s Cairo speech.  Both Neo-Cons and liberals agreed with this analysis, while disagreeing on how best to achieve it.

Now that argument is over: the Tunisian and Egyptian people have stepped up to take democracy into their own hands. With any luck, the result of the Jan 25 revolution will be a Middle East that has more freedom and less fantasy.

And that is very, very good for Israel, and for us all.