Feeding Jewish Fears of Egypt’s Democratic Uprising

It’s understandable and predictable that many Jews would be looking at the events in Egypt with the implications for their own concerns in mind. I have already written about the dangers of this kind of narrow-mindedness, especially if it entirely ignores the aspirations and fate of the people of Egypt and the future of other repressive Arab regimes. But as long as concerns about Israel’s future, the impact on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Arab relations in Europe, America and other places where there are Jewish communities are set in the wider context of support for the advancement of democratic values and human rights and the interests of the people in the region, I see no reason why Jews should not be seeking to explore such concerns.

In so far as they might be looking at Jewish sources and Jewish and non-Jewish commentators likely to be read by Jewish audiences  for guidance, what are they finding?

Not unsurprisingly, the cautious tone of many is largely driven by fear of power eventually ending up in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen as likely to tear up the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Lorna Fitzsimmons, head of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), wrote in Jewish News on 3 Feb 2011:

In Israel, the hope for increased civil liberties is therefore viewed with caution, as one of its key regional allies undergoes a period of political turmoil. . . . In the Middle East vacuums are perilous and, at present, it is uncler how the vacuum will be filled. The most organised opposition group, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is strongly anti-Israel, but does not have a clear revolutionary programme for assuming power. Other opposition groups are fragmented and unorganized . . . As Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza proved, respect for civil liberties is essential for tyranny to be avoided.

If opposition groups were so ‘unorganized’, would they have got this far? And it doesn’t make sense to refer to Hamas, but to ignore so glibly the responsibility of Israel for Hamas’s rise to power.

While Fitzsimmons makes some attempt to stand back from creating a bogeyman out of the Brotherhood, the Jewish News leader has no such qualms:

It is tempting to get swept up in the high emotion of the people’s revolution currently taking place on the streets of Cairo and beyond. The sight of an oppressed nation demanding its freedom is intoxicating. But, despite Egypt’s hunger for democracy, what comes after Mubarak could be far worse. . . . Israel’s enemies clearly have high hopes for life after Mubarak.

A column by Charlie Wolf in the paper makes much of the parallel with the 1979 Iranian revolution and President Jimmy Carter’s failure to do anything about the seizure of power by the Islamic radicals and warns that the same could happen in Egypt:

Don’t fall into the trap laid by the press about the Brothers. [They] are the progenitors of Hamas. They will bide their time for the chance to send Egypt to the dark ages and strike at Israel. . . . Freedom takes time and effort.

Groundless certainty and a patronising tone only feed paranoia.

One might have expected more extensive coverage and analysis in the Jewish Chronicle but, apart from a good piece by Lawrence Joffe, with some very useful background history, and good reportage by Anshel Pfeffer, who writes also for Haaretz, there was very little. Joffe is sanguine and sensible about the Brotherhood, showing that their position is far more complex than other commentators make out:

the mainstream Brothers have allied with Egyptian political parties. Having become a vehicle of dissent, it will be intriguing to see how they react in the new age of openness.

Might they seem like another atrophied old guard institution? Few have focused on their divisions between ageing seers and a younger breakaway group, Wasat (Centre).

Quoting Nachman of Bratzlav: ‘The world is a narrow bridge; the point is, don’t be scared’, Jofffe writes:

Nothing Israel does can change the will of the Egyptian people. Surely this is the first law of democracy, and as an established democracy, Israel should respect the 80 million Egyptians trying to find their own way across that narrow bridge.

For full-blooded scaremongering, go no further than Melanie Phillips on her Spectator blog. Egypt is a ‘fulcrum of Nazi-style Jew-hatred which it exports to the Arab and Muslim world.’ And the Muslim Brotherhood are poised to turn the country into an Islamic republic sooner or later if democracy runs free. Phillips pours venom on the Obama administration, arguing that it is now ready to accept a government that would include the Brotherhood:

The Obamites are in effect offering up America’s throat to be cut – cheered on, of course, by the western left, who are representing the Brotherhood as the poster-boys of Middle East democracy.

Bereft of any evidence-based arguments, Phillips, as she does so often, resorts to Nazi analogies: ‘The Brotherhood is at war with America – and is furthermore, through Hamas, in something resembling a kind of Molotov/Ribbentrop-style alliance with Iran (even though they also hate Iran)’. For those who need their fix of Phillips to feed their paranoia, they will be well-pleased with her fulminations on the Egyptian uprising.

Many people will have turned to Jonathan Freedland for a balanced but liberal view of events. In his Guardian column on 1 February he expresses sympathy with Israel’s concerns but he asks, rhetorically, how ‘[big] a prize would be an Israeli peace with the Egyptian people, one underpinned by their genuine consent? That, and that alone, would be a treaty to last.’ And he concludes:

For now, as Israelis watch their neighbour, fear is outstripping hope. But another reaction is possible. It would acknowledge that peace with Arab rulers alone could never last, that one day Israel will have to make peace with the peoples it lives among. That day may not be coming soon – but that truth just got a whole lot harder to avoid.

But Freedland seems to go too far in giving credence to Israel’s fears and doesn’t appear to realise that it simply may not be up to Israel to decide what’s next at all.

For those who buy into the Jewish Chronicle‘s latest theory that the Guardian wants to do nothing else but promote Hamas, the publication of Benny Morris’s piece on the paper’s Comment is Free website would have come as a surprise. Morris puts the Brotherhood centre-stage and argues that it is deliberately adopting a low profile so as not to frighten the Western horses. ‘This is not a movement for which democracy has any appeal, worth or value. Its leaders see democratic processes merely as means to an end, an end that includes an end to democracy.’ And once it has taken over the state, one of its first acts is likely to be the annulment of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

But it seems that Morris is not so sure after all. He speculates that the Brotherhood might follow the path of Turkey’s Islamists, following democratic norms and being neutral between Iran and the West. ‘But it is more likely, given Egypt’s position and history, and its own history, that the Brotherhood will follow the model of Iran and the Gaza Hamas’–i.e., use extreme violence to maintain power. How they would attain power Morris never explains.

In a far better informed piece, Daniella Peled, writing in Haaretz on 4 February, makes no attempt to minimise the challenge represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, but inists that:

change is happening, defying all kinds of standard tropes about the Arab world − not least the idea that Arabs only understand a strong hand, and that the only alternative to dictatorship is an Islamic fundamentalist regime.

Being better organized than any other opposition group, they are likely to do relatively well in any elections, but the outcome is hard to predict. And if they are part of a new government that maintains the peace treaty, Israel will have to do business with them. Highlighting the retrogressive thinking that prevails in political circles in Israel and among Jewish leadership elsewhere, Peled writes bluntly:

Surely the finest minds in Jerusalem could have come up with something better than Netanyahu’s hint this week that he wants to impose the same kind of ideological conditions on a new Egyptian government that he did on Hamas. If he thinks that his international allies will go along with this, as they did with Hamas, he is deluding himself.

Rachel Shabi’s Guardian article on 4 Feb 2011 also drew attention to dangerously unbalanced thinking in Israel. She writes:

Israel’s reaction has been of rising panic, as typified by Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz. He today warned that Israel’s ‘concrete strategic assumptions were liquefied almost overnight’, representing a ‘colossal psychological blow’ and a reminder that Israel is ‘territorially and demographically dwarfed by the seething entities arrayed around us’.

Israel’s apparent inability to see beyond next week is straining relations with some who have been strong supporters of the country’s robust security policy and tough stance towards the Palestinians. In a piece for the Atlantic on 2 February, Jeffrey Goldberg describes how some neoconservatives have ‘split’ with Israel over Egypt. They ‘made democracy promotion in the Middle East an overarching goal, [and] are [now] scratching their heads at what they see as Israeli shortsightedness.’ Goldberg quotes neocon Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official, now with the Council on Foreign Relations:

The Israelis first of all do not believe in the universality of democracy.  They believe what many American ‘experts’ did in, say, 1950–democracy was fine for us and Western Europe, but not for Latins (too much Catholic culture) and Asians (too much Confucianism).  They believe Arab culture does not permit democracy.

They see a danger in Mubarak’s fall, and they are right: we do not know who will take over now or in a year or two from now.  But this is at bottom a crazy reaction.  What they are afraid of is the Muslim Brotherhood, right?  Mubarak has ruled for THIRTY YEARS and leaves us a Brotherhood that is that powerful?  Isn’t that all the proof we need that dictatorship is not the way to fight the Brotherhood?  He crushed the moderate and centrist groups and left the Brothers with an open field.  He is to blame for the Brothers’ popularity and strength right now.  The sooner he goes the better.

A Middle East expert I suspect few Jewish readers will be aware of endorses Abrams view. Asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to win fair elections in Egypt, Gilbert Achcar, who grew up in Lebanon and is professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London (and author most recently of The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives), replied:

I would say that it is the lack of democracy that led religious fundamentalist forces to occupy such a space. . . . In such conditions, the easiest venue for the expression of mass protest turns out to be the one that uses the most readily and openly available channels. That’s how the opposition got dominated by forces adhering to religious ideologies and programmes.

Although the Brotherhood is officially banned, the regime took steps to appease them, thereby boosting their position in a society where no serious political opposition has been tolerated. But Achcar soberly assesses their objectives:

The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal is to secure a democratic change that would grant them the possibility to take part in free elections, both parliamentary and presidential. The model they aspire to reproduce in Egypt is that of Turkey, where the democratisation process was controlled by the military with the army remaining a key pillar of the political system. This process nonetheless created a space which allowed the AKP, an Islamic conservative party, to win elections. They are not bent on overthrowing the state, hence their courting of the military and their care to avoid any gesture that could antagonize the army. They adhere to a strategy of gradual conquest of power: they are gradualists, not radicals.

In the interview Achcar gives a subtle, multidimensional and insightful review of the opposition forces in Egypt. But the dominant force in the uprising is not an organized political grouping but ‘the amazing surge of democratic aspirations’. He continues:

Neither in Tunisia, nor in Egypt or anywhere else, were popular protests waged for religious programs, or even led principally by religious forces. These are democratic movements, displaying a strong longing for democracy. Polls have been showing for many years that democracy as a value is rated very highly in Middle Eastern countries, contrary to common ‘Orientalist’ prejudices about the cultural ‘incompatibility’ of Muslim countries with democracy. The ongoing events prove one more time that any population deprived of freedom will eventually stand up for democracy, whatever ‘cultural sphere’ it belongs to.

Would that more Jewish readers were accessing such well-informed assessments of the developments in Egypt. My very incomplete survey suggests that while there is some good reportage and sensible analysis, the more shrill, fearful, patronising and narrow-minded views are dominant. Sticking out like a sore thumb is the hypocritical approach which at one moment is praising Israel as the only ‘real’ democracy in the Middle East and at the next is questioning whether Egyptians or Arabs in general will ever know what to do with democratic freedoms if they secure them. I would have expected more well-known right-of-centre Jewish or pro-Israel columnists to pronounce on these matters, but perhaps their silence (temporary, I’m sure) arises out of an awareness of the dilemma in which they find themselves: reconciling their belief in the paramount value of democracy with their negative assessment of Arab societies and a stereotypically negative view of what the ‘Arab mind’, a completely outmoded concept, is capable of.

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5 Responses to Feeding Jewish Fears of Egypt’s Democratic Uprising

  1. Margie in Tel Aviv says:

    ”It’s understandable and predictable that many Jews would be looking at the events in Egypt with the implications for their own concerns in mind”. You start off well

    ”I have already written about the dangers of this kind of narrow-mindedness,” Narrowmindedness?
    This word, when discussing the existential claims of another nation, is arrogant & argues an acute lack of perception.
    If you have any justification, or any real thesis to present in which the concerns of the Egyptians are so important that our own should pale in their wake you can discuss it at http://cifwatch.com/2011/02/20/rabbi-howard-coopers-act-of-bad-faith/

    • Thanks for commenting on my blogpost Margie.

      If you have a substantive point to make about what I wrote, why not make it here instead of suggesting that I join a discussion on another website which specialises in smears and lies, is in itself a collective ‘act of bad faith’ and is therefore best avoided.

  2. Margie in Tel Aviv says:

    Tony
    saying that a site ‘specialises in smears and lies’ without substantiating that, is suspect to me.

    Further, do you mean that you didn’t see this as a substantive point?
    ”I have already written about the dangers of this kind of narrow-mindedness,” Narrowmindedness?
    This word, when discussing the existential claims of another nation, is arrogant & argues an acute lack of perception.
    If you have any justification, or any real thesis to present in which the concerns of the Egyptians are so important that our own should pale in their wake you can discuss it…..

  3. Enlightened says:

    Excellent article. Keep up the good work.

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