Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why I Support the Egyptian People’s Revolution as an Israeli and a Jew - and Why You Should Too

The West, and Israelis and Jews in particular, seem to have come to the foregone conclusion that if Mubarak leaves power (probably better said as when Mubarak leaves), Egypt will be overrun by a barbaric horde of Jew-hating, warmongering  Islamists whose first action in power will be to rip up all peace agreements and send their entire military to conquer Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  I understand their anxiety; Egypt has a powerful army and the idea of fighting an all-out war on the southern front - something we haven't had to do since 1973 - is scary.  I however am much more optimistic and support the Egyptian people unequivocally, as an American, an Israeli, and a Jew, despite my first concern always being for the welfare of Israel and the Jewish people.  I would suggest that other Israelis and Jews do the same thing, or at a minimum be supportive of the Egyptian people while watching carefully to see what kind of government emerges post-Mubarak.

I am not naive, and I fully recognize that I may turn out to be wrong – but I'll save the caveats for if anyone actually comments on my post.

Reactions from my Jewish friends to my support of the Egyptian protesters have ranged from “people said the same thing about Iran when the Shah was overthrown; be careful what you wish for” to “Egypt is after all quite a radical country.”  My favorite was when a friend I invited to come with me to a protest at the Egyptian UN Mission assumed I meant a protest in support of the Egyptian government.  Israeli newspapers carry such panicked headlines as “Who will protect Israel on the Egyptian Front?” and “The Egyptian masses won't play ally to Israel.”

How then, did I come to be such a supporter of the popular uprising of Il-Uma Il-Musriya?  There are a number of reasons:

  1. Egypt in 2011 is not Iran in 1979, and my read of Middle East geopolitics, the situation in Egypt, and the Egyptian people is that they are unlikely to accept an Islamic state or start a war (this includes my personal connections to Egypt)
  2. This revolution is about Egypt, not Israel, and the only way that we can possible make it about Israel is if we interfere
  3. Mubarak was no friend of the US or Israel; he was merely a savvy dictator who knew that the best way to stay in power was to play on everybody’s fear of the other and position himself as the only one capable of holding down the Islamic masses, a lie that many a Western-backed Arab dictator has mastered (see for example my friend Maha’s commentary for Forbes on the case of Tunisia)
  4. The nearly flawless way that the Egyptian people have been conducting themselves in the last week of protests
  5. Because it’s the right thing to do, and even if there is some short-term pain to Israel – or even a lot – in the long run I believe that this will create a more stable Middle East

1. Egypt in 2011 is not Iran in 1979. 

First of all, Egypt is around 10% Christian, vs only 2% non-Muslim in Iran.  That 5x makes a big difference; the Coptic Christians have deep roots in Egypt and would resist an Islamic state with all their ability.  The solidarity b/w Muslims and Christians in the revolution has seemed complete, with Twitter abuzz that the Christians were guarding the Muslims from the police while they performed their Friday prayer.

Second, in Iran, the Ayatollah’s were orchestrating the revolution long before the Shah fell.  Time Magazine in 1979 wrote “Ubiquitous transistor radios and cassette tape recorders with messages relayed over telephone lines to some 9,000 mosques all over Iran allowed a 78-year-old holy man [Ayatollah Khomeini] camped in a Paris suburb to direct a revolution 2,600 miles away like a company commander assaulting a hill.”  That is hardly the case here, where you have a Muslim Brotherhood that is struggling to keep up with the youth to achieve legitimacy.

Finally, Egypt is the birthplace of a secular Arabic nationalism that far predates their ties to the West, as well as the cradle of a civilization thousands of years old.  Egyptians, while conservative overall, value their religious freedom and I don’t see them giving it up to the MB. 

The following picture and caption (from Twitpic) sums it up for me:
Caption: Tonight. I drink and smoke in the name of love and revolution. Tomorrow I take it to the streets!

I mean, what kind of Islamic revolutionary drinks Heineken, let alone posts about it to Twitter?

2. The revolution is about Egypt, not Israel or the US

Regardless of who takes over, and regardless of their professed pre-revolution feelings towards Israel, I do not believe that the Egyptian people want war.  They may not like us, but they don’t want to fight us.  They are far more concerned with building their own civil society than with Israel, which many Egyptians recognize has been used as a bogeyman by the Mubarak regime (yes, the same Mubarak – more on that later) to hijack maintain fear and support internally.

I have been very impressed, reviewing the constant stream of tweets as well as Al-Jazeera’s 24-hour live coverage, that any mention of Israel has been fleeting and clearly outside the norm, with the exception of a wave of anger that arose in response to Netanyahu’s very public request for worldwide support for Mubarak, long after it was clear that Mubarak was going down (just further proof of Netanyahu’s diplomatic arrogance and idiocy.  He complains that King Hussein of Jordan doesn’t want to meet him – but neither does Bill Clinton.  For the record I voted Livni).  Indeed, most of the Egyptians' anger with Israel comes from our support of Mubarak, not our treatment of the Palestinians.  Time writes:

It's not that the rebellion is being fueled by anti-Americanism or radical Islamist sentiments; it's a protest driven by the Egyptians' economic and political needs. The U.S. is viewed with hostility among the demonstrators first and foremost because of its longtime support for a tyrannical regime.

Gideon Levy writes in Ha’Aretz that "If there's one thing shared by all factions of the Egyptian opposition, it is their seething hatred of Israel."  This surprises me, as I have personally met the blogger who calls himself Sandmonkey and who has become a major source of info for the New York Times, and he and his friends knew that I was Israeli, and I never detected any seething hatred.  Mona El-Tahawy, who I don’t know personally but I feel like I do as she is a friend of a friend, writes in the Guardian:

“… the uprisings are curing the Arab world of an opiate, the obsession with Israel. For years, successive Arab dictators have tried to keep discontent at bay by distracting people with the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel's bombardment of Gaza in 2009 increased global sympathy for Palestinians. Mubarak faced the issue of both guarding the border of Gaza, helping Israel enforce its siege, and continuing to use the conflict as a distraction. Enough with dictators hijacking sympathy for Palestinians and enough with putting our lives on hold for that conflict.”

Herb Keinon echoes this in his opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post (not known for being a left-wing organization):

“From an Israeli perspective, one of the most striking elements of the evolving revolution in Egypt, Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world is the degree to which all of this is not about us.

For the tens of thousands of protesters who took to Egypt’s streets over the weekend, defying the curfew and calling for the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, Israel and the Palestinians were simply not on the agenda.

And the same was the case during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia earlier this month, and in the demonstrations intermittently taking place in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Morocco. No cries of death to Israel, no signs to “lift the siege” of Gaza, no chants against housing projects in Ariel.”

3. Mubarak was no friend of the US or Israel

To the extent that there are anti-Israel sentiments in Egypt (and there are, undoubtedly), Mubarak played a large role in keeping them alive.  When I studied Arabic in Cairo, I was surprised to learn that many of the friends I made there wanted to visit Israel but were afraid of being interrogated by Mubarak’s secret police if they did.  While Israeli tourists flocked to the Sinai and even Egypt proper, Egyptian civilians were barely allowed by the Mubarak government to visit IsraelJordan entered into the trilateral QIZ agreements in 1997, allowing Jordanian made goods to enter the US tariff and quota free as long as they contained a minimum amount of Israeli input.  The main export from the Jordanian QIZ’s was textiles, but Mubarak refused to join the treaty - despite the importance of the textile industry to Egypt - until pressure from the Egyptian textile industry forced his hand in 2004.

Similarly, Egyptian state newspapers and the state education system under Mubarak continued to vilify Israel.  My Egyptian friends explained it to me as Mubarak telling the nation “Be afraid of Israel.  Be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Only I, the strongman Hosni Mubarak, can keep you safe from both.”  This Jerusalem Post article states that “While school textbooks in Egypt urge tolerance towards Copts and call for religious moderation and peace, they deny the existence of the State of Israel and contain anti-Jewish material.”  Whose government designed these textbooks?  Mubarak’s.

What about the US?  Everyone loves to point out how Mubarak is such a strong ally of the US.  Yet as Michael Rubin of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute points out,

“Mubarak's Egypt votes with the U.S. at the United Nations only 17% of the time, making Egypt a less reliable partner than Cuba, Vietnam or Zimbabwe. During both the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and the ouster of Saddam 12 years later, Mubarak's support was ephemeral at best. Privately, Egypt often backs the American position on Iran, Libya, and Hamas, but that has less to do with Washington's desires than with Egyptian self-interest.

4. The Impressive Behavior of The Egyptian People Throughout the Chaos

Cairo, when I was there, was dirty and chaotic.  People threw garbage in the street without regard, and hardly anyone paid attention to the traffic police.  It is remarkable – and in my opinion only bodes well – to see the transformation that the Egyptian people seem to have gone through since January 25.  It’s as if all of a sudden, realizing that they can exert control over their lives, they’ve taken pride in their surroundings in a way they never cared to do before, because what did it matter, the whole country was a mess.  Now people believe that the country is something to be proud of, and it shows.  I earlier mentioned Copts guarding Muslims while they prayed; there are also reports of Egyptian volunteers guarding the Egypt museum, cleaning the downtown, guiding traffic, and of course guarding their neighborhoods against government thugs (my friend Noha confirmed her father and brother participating in this).  Gina, another Egyptian friend, noted that the male chauvinism that was usually dominant in Cairo had been subverted to focus on the protests; men and women were protesting together with nary a catcall.  Meanwhile the military has managed to play a neutral role and committed not to fire on the Egyptian people, leading to some beautiful scenes.  Some of my favorite pictures are below:

Men and women protesting together (this looks like the old AUC gates but I may be mistaken)

“Downtown, where I used to walk around fearing cars, is filled with tanks and people are sitting on them. #jan25

"She was cleaning Tahrir square. "I believe some should protest and others should clean", she says. #jan25

“An Egyptian Army soldier is a handed a flower by an anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo.” (Source)

“Mariam Solayman, a member of an Egyptian activist group, shouts anti-government slogans in front of a police cordon during a demonstration outside the press syndicate in central Cairo Thursday." Source. (does she look like an Islamist?)

5. Because It’s The Right Thing To Do

I’ve already written so much I doubt anyone is reading this far, so I’ll let this one stand on its own.  If you believe in democracy, and you believe in the human right to self-determination, and having already written about why I don’t believe Egypt is about to deteriorate into an Islamic theocracy, why it’s not an existential threat to anyone and how  Mubarak is a friend to no one, what other conclusion could you possibly come to?  The Egyptian people have decided, and now it’s just a matter of when, not if.  When Mubarak finally does go, do you want to be on the wrong side of history, the side that tried in vain and in fear to hold him in power?  Or do you want to be on the right side, the side of the people, the side that will have a voice when the post-revolutionary debate starts about what Egypt’s future will bring?  Because the real battle for the hearts and minds of the Middle East is just beginning, and the story of how it turns out – a new, Arab and Islamic democracy or deterioration into Hamas or Iranian-style Islamic repression – is yet to be written.  If, however you support Mubarak until the end – and by you I’m talking to my fellow Americans, Westerners, Israelis, and Jews – don’t be surprised when no one listens to you after Mubarak's fall.


More links to hopeful articles that I did not work into this post:

This is not 1979. American flags aren't being burned in the streets of Cairo. … protesters unfailingly polite toward American visitors,
The Egyptian people have not risen up against their ruler to realign the country with the anti-American, anti-Israeli axis of Iran, Hamas, Syria and Hizballah in the cold war for the Middle East. Of the legion of signs and slogans arrayed and shouted in Tahrir Square, I encountered just one that even referred to Israel: a small Star of David on the necktie of a Mubarak dummy hung in effigy from a lamppost. For a political demonstration in the Arab world, this is next to nothing. One protester ran up to me and said, "I want the American people to know this is not about Israel. We are at peace with Israel. We are not at peace with Mubarak."

No comments:

Post a Comment