It looks almost too good to be true. Good-natured but passionate demonstrators massing in their tens of thousands in Tahrir Square today. The manifest desire for political and economic reform, not bloody revenge. The army pledging itself to protect the rights of the demonstrators. The determination to stay put until the regime is ousted, despite the deprivations people will suffer in the interim. And Omar Sharif interviewed for BBC2’s GMT praising the young protesters for being kind and polite: ‘I am proud of them’.
No one who witnessed the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe could fail to see some parallels with what is now unfolding. And all those who have characterized Arab societies as only able to achieve change through some form of very violent upheaval or revolution should be scratching their heads and questioning their assumptions.
And yet, as in some of the Eastern European revolutions, there have been violent incidents resulting in many deaths as well as wanton destruction – on television last night, the image of a Cairo shopping centre looted, trashed and burnt was very disturbing, as are reports that in certain areas people have been frightened out of their wits at night at the sound of gangs of looters roaming streets. But it would surely need to be those who want to discredit the popular uprising who would want to see these incidents as characterising the unfolding revolutionary events. It’s not over yet and there may still be some form of violent crackdown, but it is beginning to look as if even an attempt at heavy-handed repression would not halt the momentum that has been building up.
It’s understandable that Israeli spokespeople would take a ‘glass half-full’ approach. The Star of David scrawled on the neck of what I believe was an effigy of Mubarak will certainly not provide any reassurance for the Netanyahu government or for ordinary Israelis following events. But sober assessment would surely suggest that it cannot be in the interests of any of the main opposition forces to want to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel in preparation for a possible war. Renewed hostilities would result in precisely the sort of social, political and economic turmoil that the uprising wishes to avoid. Would it not therefore make sense for Israel to stress the positive at this time, as a means of paving the way for a dialogue between aspiring democracies that could put flesh on the bones of the Arab Peace Initiative and lead to a completely new approach to peace negotiations?
Well, it would seem not. The former Israel Ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, interviewed by George Alagiah on GMT at 12.30 pm UK time today, refused to express wholehearted support for full-blown democratic change in Egypt. He stressed the need for stability, expressed fears about a new leadership that did not know where it was going and seemed thoroughly grumpy about what it would mean for Israel. To me, this seemed like a very patronising performance. Democracy has to come slowly to Egypt; it’s not like a European state, Mazel said.
As my grandmother might have said, ‘He’s thinking with his kishkes and not his kop‘ (his stomach, not his head). And now I hear that King Abdullah of Jordan has dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new prime minister in the face of large street protests. Is it really feasible that the Israeli government will continue to convey the distinct impression that it wishes to side with unelected leaders and would like nothing more than to restore the status quo ante?