Freedom from fear in the Middle East

By Khaled Diab

The could usher in freedom to the Middle East, but Arabs and Israelis must break free of the chains of prejudice, history and fear.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Millions of Egyptians have accomplished what many thought was improbable: They defied their dictator and won. After three decades as Egypt's uncontested leader, 's downfall has understandably been cause for euphoria and celebration in Egypt and across the .

Egyptians have made history. But now, they need to ensure that this revolution does not become a footnote in their history.

While the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have inspired ordinary Arabs everywhere, they have been largely met with trepidation and fear in Israel. But as a wave of hope and empowerment begins to ripple through the world, it would be a shame and a grave mistake to continue in ‘business-as-usual' mode on the Arab-Israeli front.

The changing Middle Eastern landscape is a wake-up call to both sides to transform what were once two competing nationalisms (pan-Arab and Zionist ) into complementary ones. The first step toward achieving this is to acknowledge that not everything is the other side's fault.

Nevertheless, Israelis worry that rather than heralding the dawn of next door, the unfolding revolution marks the sunset of secularism. The frenzied analogies fixate on and 1979, and assume that the Muslim Brotherhood will spearhead a counterrevolution and orchestrate a theocratic takeover of Egypt.

Though I despise the stifling impact of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egyptian society, I doubt this scenario. While the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions share a common denominator in that both were popular revolts against Western-backed despots that took the world by surprise, there are numerous vital differences between them.

One of the most critical is that Egypt has no ‘cult' religious revolutionary figure like Ayatollah Khomeini. The nearest to a ‘face' that the Egyptian revolution has is Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, seasoned international diplomat and avowed secularist. The only thing the two men share in common is that they returned home to lead something that they didn't start.

In addition, the Egyptian Sunni clergy – which has long been subservient to the secular authorities – is generally not involved in and is not held in the same kind of awe as its Shi'ite counterpart, which was politicized.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, it was not only a latecomer to the revolution, but is also largely made up of conservative and rather grey laymen who tend to be drawn from the ranks of professionals, i.e. doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Moreover, Egypt today is not Iran circa 1979. The revolution comes at a time when Egypt, which has long had close contact with the West, has had almost two centuries of modernising and secularising experience.

Of course, Israeli fears stem not from whether or not Egypt will become a theocracy – as a friendly theocracy would, I imagine, be all right – but from whether or not the new order will be more hostile to an Israel feeling isolated and insecure.

The Muslim Brotherhood is probably the most hostile party to Israel. However, suspicion, distrust, dislike and fear of Israel cut across party lines, both out of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and out of the humiliation Israel has heaped on the wider Arab world. This probably means that the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace will become frostier.

Nevertheless, pragmatism is likely to prevail, and I don't think any likely Egyptian government would risk reneging on the peace agreement. The army has already demonstrated this with its statement that Egypt will respect all its foreign agreements.

For Israel, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions should be taken not as a threat but as an opportunity. Israelis need to realise that the road to their security lies not through Cairo, but through Jerusalem, the West Bank and .

As the Papers and before them the Oslo Accords clearly demonstrate, along with Israel's non-reaction to the Arab Peace Initiative, Israeli intransigence, founded on military might and superpower sponsorship, is no substitute for justice. Authority built on oppression, as Mubarak found out, inevitably crumbles.

Following the revolution, Egyptians would be justified in keeping their economic distance from Israel, but they need to stop cold-shouldering Israelis, because this fuels the popular fear that Arabs are not after peace with Israel, but its defeat and destruction by any means possible. The only way to allay these worries and build the necessary popular groundswell for peace is to engage in a direct, grass-roots conversation and dialogue.

The Egyptian revolution could usher in an era of freedom in the Middle East. But for it to do so, Arabs and Israelis must break free of the chains of prejudice, history and fear.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 15 February 2011. It was commissioned and distributed by the Common Ground News Service.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and . He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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4 thoughts on “Freedom from fear in the Middle East

  • Bravo & Alf Mabrouk to the Egyptian people! We have only to gain by uniting and facing the future together,we are all brothers and sisters..Here`s hoping for a brighter future for us all TOGETHER in the Middle East Inshalla!Blessings of light* 🙂

  • KhaledDiab

    Shalom David, thank you for your supportive comments, and I truly hope that the regional quest for freedom ‘infects’ the Israeli-Palestinian front as well.

  • As an Israeli, a Jew and a Zionist, I welcome the balanced and peaceful comments of my Egyptian neighbour. I worked in Egypt from 1991 to 1995 as Consul General of Israel in Alexandria with the aim of strengthening the peace treaty relations between our two countries and most of the time I met with a positive response by the good people of Alexandria. Only very rarely did I hear any sort of negative comment.

    I wish the people of Egypt well as they seek a new form of government which is for them to decide and I do hope that they will always see us Israelis as neighbours and not as “the enemy”.

    Obviously I am in favour of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace to be negotiated and regret as you do the very slow progress. But politics are complicated on both sides of the fence.


    “Al-‘agala min a-shaytan…” Inshallah biseer salaam…..

    David Zohar

  • israel donnot understand any thing but force , it is hard to reason with them . after the arab said, with peace with the palestinian , return to 1967 border all arab nation including some moslem nation will have diplomatic relation with israel . but it fell on deaf ear . peace is not wanted in israel . the world must understand .


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