By Khaled Diab
A democratic Egypt will not go to war with Israel, but for the cold peace to thaw, Israel must ends its occupation.
9 February 2011
The unfolding revolution in Egypt has not only caused nervousness among Arab dictators but it has also sent shockwaves throughout Israeli society, with fears that the end of the Mubarak dictatorship will lead to an Islamist takeover of the country, the tearing up of the peace treaty between the two countries and perhaps even full-out war.
But are these fears justified? Could Egypt really become the next Middle Eastern theocracy? Well, in my honest opinion, those who warn or fear such an eventuality have either not been following the situation in Egypt closely or are ideologically disinclined to believe that Egyptians and Arabs are capable of forging and maintaining a democracy.
Since protests began on 25 January, I have been following events very closely. In fact, for an expatriate Egyptian who has long dreamed of democracy in his homeland, the demonstrations have made compulsive viewing and have filled me with the urge to fly back to Egypt. In all the endless hours of footage I’ve watched, I have not seen any protesters chanting Islamist slogans, burning American or Israeli flags, or chanting death to Israel.
Instead, protesters, mostly ordinary people from across Egypt and from all walks of life and from the country‘s two main religious groups, are out to protest economic inequality and demand their political freedom. They have been making very clear and precise demands: the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak and his entire regime, the appointment of a transitional “national salvation” government and the holding of free and fair democratic elections as soon as possible.
Although millions have taken to the streets, the demonstrations have been peaceful and orderly, and this in a country famed for its semi-disorganised chaos, and despite the regime’s best efforts to lock down communications and transport networks. In fact, the only violence so far has come from the government and not the people, as demonstrated by the violent police reaction to early protests and the government-backed goons and thugs that turned Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the symbolic heart of the protests into a battlefield in a bid to intimidate the protesters into submission.
But still they refused to be intimidated, those Egyptians whom so many had dismissed, including themselves, as lacking the steadfastness and wherewithal to challenge the status quo. In spite of the fallen and despite being beaten, battered, abandoned and under siege, they came out in their millions across the country for the ‘Friday of Departure’, although at the time of writing the diehard dictator was still refusing to depart.
When not under attack by police or the regime’s thugs, the demos have often been marked by an almost carnival air, with people singing and dancing and employing the wry wit for which Egyptians are well-known throughout the Arab world to scathing effect.
Despite all these clear singles, there are widespread fears in Israel that the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings to take over power. “In a situation of chaos, an organised Islamist body can seize control of a country. It happened in Iran. It happened in other instances,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reflecting the tone of speculation across much of the Israeli political spectrum.
So, could we be on the path towards the creation of the Islamic Republic of Egypt?
Well, the longstanding theory, exploited by Mubarak and other dictators, that when presented with democratic choice, Arabs would vote in Islamists who would then strip citizens of their democratic rights and so it is best to prop up friendly dictators is not only inaccurate but insulting, arrogant and unfair. It is like saying that democracy is something only “civilised” peoples can comprehend and uphold, and, hence, Arabs have no right to aspire to it.
I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution, even if Iran itself, for propaganda purposes, has drawn parallels between its own revolution and current events in Egypt.
But there is a world of difference between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011. For one, the Egyptian Sunni clergy are not politicised and are not held in the same kind of awe as their Shi’a counterparts. Iran had the charismatic and “holy” cult figure Ayatollah Khomeini, while the Muslim Brotherhood is largely made up of conservative and rather grey professionals in suits, i.e. doctors, lawyers and engineers.
More significantly, the party missed the boat in this revolution by refusing to take part in the protests, which were actually initiated by disaffected and disempowered youth, or back them until it was clear to everyone that they were unstoppable. The movement’s top brass, under the conservative and cautious leadership of Mohammed Badie, have proven themselves not only to be out of touch with the popular mood, but also with the younger, more open-minded generation within their own ranks.
In addition, one factor behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s apparent success and popularity, with the movement often described as Egypt’s largest opposition party, is the fact that they were kind of the “last man left standing” after the secular opposition was purged, starting in the 1970s under former president Anwar el-Sadat who also backed the Islamist current as a counterbalance to his powerful secular opponents.
But now, with freedom beckoning and plurality around the corner, the Brotherhood can no longer play the dual role of being both the last protest party for the disenfranchised and the demon used by the regime to scare the outside world. In fact, with the emergence of democracy, the Brotherhood, as Egypt’s second oldest party (though one that has been banned for most of its existence), would only be one of Egypt’s many political and social movements, albeit a fairly influential one, and could perhaps eventually morph into a sort of “Muslim Democratic” party. As a secular progressive, I have little love for the Muslim Brotherhood, but if there are Egyptians who wish to vote for them, that‘s their choice to make.
That said, even for religious Egyptians, the Brotherhood is not the only show in town, especially since more and more people are discovering that their slogan “Islam is the answer” has not really answered anything. For example, one hijabbed female protester interviewed by al-Jazeera insisted that, though she was a devout Muslim, she would not vote for the Brotherhood, because, for her, religion was a private affair.
More importantly, I cannot help thinking that Israel is drawing the wrong lessons from the Iranian revolution. To my mind, what the Iranian revolution demonstrates is that if you suppress people’s desire for freedom for too long and back tyrants and dictators, then eventually extremism will emerge. Had the CIA not bankrolled a coup d’etat against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, in 1953 and reinstated the Shah, then the Islamic revolution would probably never have occurred and the West would enjoy more cordial relations with a free and democratic Iran.
By urging the United States and Europe to help Mubarak cling on to power, Israel could unwittingly be helping to create the monster it fears. Luckily, it appears that US President Barack Obama has apparently drawn the correct lessons from history with his insistence that only the Egyptian people can determine their leaders.
Besides, at its heart, the Arab-Israeli conflict is about land and a clash of competing nationalisms. For instance, it wasn’t so long ago that Israel and the United States feared Arab secularists and supported Islamists as a counterbalance against them.
So, Israelis would do well to heed the advice of one protester on Tahrir Square. “If Israel continues to support Mubarak, we will start to hate Israel more and more,” he said. “Israel has to give up. Now Israel is a friend of one man, of Mubarak, but tomorrow it needs to be a friend of 80 million.”
Moreover, democracy is a value that you either believe in or you do not. You cannot say that dictatorship is fine as long as it serves our interests and affects other people. To illustrate how ridiculous this notion is, it would be like saying that because Israel voted in the most extremist government in living memory, Israelis no longer deserve to rule themselves and should have a dictatorship imposed upon them.
So, what are the likely effects of democracy on Egypt’s relations with Israel?
Since most of Egypt’s political class is unhappy with Israel’s ongoing occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace would remain just as cool or may well chill a few degrees, regardless of the composition of a future democratic government.
Nevertheless, the peace treaty is binding on Egypt, has brought it stability and most Egyptians do not want to go to war with Israel, so I don’t think any Egyptian government would risk reneging on it. It is likely, however, to do the bare minimum to respect it and, fuelled by popular sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, will probably end Egypt’s co-operation in maintaining the inhumane Gaza blockade.
If Israel values its relationship with Egypt and wishes the current cold peace to thaw and become a warm one, then it needs to reach a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as that festering wound remains, Israeli-Egyptian relations will remain rocky and tense.
So, in many ways, the ball is in Israel’s court. Although Israelis are fond of saying that Arabs and Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, and they have missed a fair number of those, the evidence suggests that the main obstacle to peace has been Israeli intransigence, founded on military might and a reluctance to cede conquered territory. But this has come at a heavy human price for the Palestinians, who live under an increasingly draconian and repressive occupation. It has also carried a heavy moral price for Israel and isolated it not only regionally but increasingly internationally.
As then President Anwar el-Sadat warned with prescience in his historic speech to the Knesset in 1977: “In all sincerity, I tell you that there can be no peace without the Palestinians. It is a grave error of unpredictable consequences to overlook or brush aside this cause.”
This article was first published in The Jerusalem Post on 5 February 2011.