A bottom-up democratic revolution in Egypt has brought down what had seemed until very recently to be the unshakable rule of Hosni Mubarak. It was an amazing accomplishment of the people’s power — something that is often sloganized about but rarely realized. The fact that the revolution succeeded with little violence on the part of the revolutionaries was equally amazing.
One must admire the courage and tenacity of the Egyptian people and take pleasure in their jubilation, but it is also necessary to look at the ongoing realities, recognizing that the process is only beginning; that there exist (with apologies to H.G. Wells) “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” to the aspirations of the common people of the Middle East; and that those intellects are already developing sophisticated strategies to thwart its fruition.
Despite the usual mantra about Israel’s being the only democracy in the Middle East, it is quite apparent that the Jewish exclusivist state has been, and in fact must be, opposed to democracy in the region. The fact that it is a state based on Jewish exclusivity means that it must treat Palestinians in an undemocratic manner in both the occupied territories and in Israel itself, because the Palestinians pose an existential threat to the Jewish state by virtue of their very existence.
Moreover, the negative reaction of Israel and its devotees to the revolution for democracy in Egypt illustrates that Israel’s detrimental effect on democracy extends far beyond the boundaries of historic Palestine. For Israeli leaders are terrified that the democratic revolution might bring about a radical change in Egypt’s foreign policy, since Mubarak had acquiesced in Israel’s regional hegemony and had actually facilitated it in some ways, which the general public neither in Egypt nor anywhere else in the Muslim Middle East would voluntarily support. And it wasn’t just Mubarak. The same applies to many of the other autocratic friends of the United States in the region, who have paid lip service to Palestinian rights simply to placate their people, while taking only half-hearted actions to advance their cause. As has been widely discussed, the democratic revolutionary fervor in Egypt shows signs of spreading throughout the region, and that would not leave the issue of democracy and human rights for the oppressed and subjugated Palestinians unaffected.
Israel and its global supporters have tried to obfuscate their fear of a popular-based democratic government in Egypt with the use of the “Muslim Brotherhood” bogeyman. That horror-story scenario presents the Muslim Brotherhood as the likely ultimate alternative to the Mubarak dictatorship. The Brotherhood, it is alleged, would exploit democratic procedures to gain power, but once it took power it would eliminate anything resembling democracy and establish a totalitarian Islamic theocracy.
In reality, there is no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood, though seeking to inject Islam into the body politic, actually plans to impose an undemocratic Islamic theocracy on Egypt, nor is there evidence that it would have the power to do so even if it wanted to. The actual uprising was led by young secularists, and one heard virtually no mention of political Islam from the protesters but, to the contrary, many expressions in favor of democracy, freedom, and toleration. It is hard to believe that supporters of radical Islam would be able to so mask their views; and it is equally hard to believe that the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who confronted the Egyptian security police and army could be cowed into submission by Islamists emerging from the shadows.
In an account sympathetic to Israel’s fears, Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert, acknowledges that it is unlikely that Egypt would turn to Islamic radicalism and that the real Israeli fear is popular government in Egypt. He writes: “… There’s no doubt that a new Egyptian government and president, more responsive to public opinion — indeed, legitimized by the public in free elections — will be, by necessity or inclination, far more critical of Israeli actions and policies and far less likely to give Israel the benefit of any doubts.”
Egypt did not just sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, setting the stage for other Middle East countries to normalize their relations with the Jewish state; under Mubarak it also collaborated with Israel in closing off the Gaza Strip, essentially creating a large, open-air prison for the 1.5 million people living there.
Miller continues: “Mubarak met regularly with Netanyahu; it’s hard to imagine a new [popularly elected] Egyptian leader doing so without demanding concessions for Palestinians or progress in the peace negotiations.” (“Why Israel fears a free Egypt,” The Washington Post, February 4, 2011)
An Egyptian government shaped by popular opinion is apt to be concerned about the nation’s dignity, as many of the Egyptian protesters emphasized, and thus it will avoid being servile toward Israel’s interests. It is very likely to take a quite different path, possibly contesting Israel’s nuclear policy, refusing to collude in Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza, and demanding that Israel abide by international law and treat the Palestinians fairly. Miller summarizes the consequent deterioration of Israel’s position:
Without Egypt, there can be neither peace nor war, and for 30 years Israelis had the first and avoided the second. Peace with Jordan, the neutralization of Iraq, and the U.S.-Israeli relationship all left the Israelis — despite their constant worries — fairly confident that they could deal with any threats to their security. But now, with Egyptian politics in turmoil, Iran emerging as a potential nuclear threat, and the prospect of trouble in Jordan and elsewhere, they’re not so sure. That Mubarak is falling not by an assassin’s hand but because of a young generation of tweeters is hardly consolation. This is one pharaoh that Israelis wish had stayed on the throne.
Sometimes the American mainstream media have made it appear that Mubarak was a beneficent dictator: at least that was the case before his fall from power. And certainly American leaders, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Biden, and even President Obama, have had favorable things to say about him. Biden even went so far as to deny that Mubarak was a dictator. But according to Human Rights Watch, torture and police abuse loomed large under Mubarak. And even the U.S. State Department joined international human-rights groups in describing a culture of torture within Egypt’s security agencies, issuing a 2009 report in which the department listed alleged abuses ranging from electroshock to sodomy.
During the past decade, the United States has relied on Egypt to interrogate terror suspects via extraordinary rendition. The Egyptian coordinator of the rendition program has been said to be none other than current Vice President Omar Suleiman, who had extensive experience in directing torture in Egypt and who Israel and the United States hoped would lead Egypt during the transition period — offering a presumably more acceptable form of authoritarianism, though it seems odd to have the torture chief perform such a task.
It cannot be said that Mubarak was simply a misguided patriot who upheld brutality solely for what he thought was the good of his country; rather, he made use of his power to amass immense wealth for his family, estimated at $40 billion to $70 billion, which is believed to reside in banks outside Egypt. (Switzerland announced it had frozen his account in that country.) That corruption, which extended throughout the governing elite, obviously hindered economic productivity and contributed to the impoverished condition of the average Egyptian — the annual income per family is a meager $2,070, according to the World Bank.
Furthermore, Mubarak’s regime maintained the usual panoply of repressive measures that are the staple of most unfree societies — tight censorship, arbitrary imprisonment, persecution of journalists, sham elections. In particular, Mubarak’s regime used a continuous state of emergency, put into effect after Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, to justify the suppression of political dissent in the name of security.
While Egypt did not reach the level of a totalitarian society in its deprivation of human freedom, it should be pointed out that many far less repressive regimes have been overthrown by revolutions. In fact, the justification for revolution in Egypt was far greater than it had been for the American revolutionaries of 1775-1776, enraged as they were by taxation and the lack of sufficient representation. And it might be added that, despite all the talk in the U.S. mainstream media about the danger of unrest in the country, the Egyptian revolution, so far, seems to be one of the most nonviolent in history and significantly less violent than the American, which even at its outset included mob action directed by the Sons of Liberty against people who expressed opposition to their revolutionary measures — action that included the practice of pouring boiling tar on people before covering them with feathers.
Now, the United States quite readily supported tyrants during the Cold War under the rationale that American security was at stake. Supporting petty dictators, it was presumed, would prevent the victory of a much broader and thorough Communist totalitarian hegemony that would seriously endanger U.S. security. And the U.S. stance was not an aberration, since during World War II the United States had supported Stalinist Russia, one of the most repressive regimes ever to exist, in order to defeat Nazi Germany. But the forcible imposition of an Islamic global caliphate resulting from the downfall of Mubarak seems infinitely less likely than the victory of the Soviet Union in the Cold War or of Nazi Germany during World War II. Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany were both superpowers, whereas the caliphate does not even exist.
Moreover, it is hard to see how support for the Mubarak dictatorship or any dictatorship in Egypt served actual U.S. vital interests. U.S. support for Mubarak certainly helped Israel, and it seems to have mutated into an American interest only by virtue of Washington’s support for Israel, resulting from the efforts of the Israel lobby. Vice President Biden revealed the centrality of Israel in U.S. policy toward Egypt when he told “PBS Newshour” on January 27 that “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, [sic] relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.” [Punctuation as shown in PBS transcript.]
With the fall of Mubarak, Washington’s position on Egypt still appears to revolve around the interests of Israel. For example, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House, says that the transition period to democracy in Egypt “must include constitutional and administrative reforms” that “are necessary for legitimate, democratic, internationally-recognized elections to take place with peaceful, responsible actors who will not only advance the aspirations of the Egyptian people, but will continue to enforce Egypt’s international obligations.” Those “international obligations,” of course, pertain to the 1979 peace accord with Israel.
Ros-Lehtinen adds that “the U.S. and our allies must focus our efforts on helping to create the necessary conditions for such a transition to take place. We must also urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel, and other free nations.” In short, the congresswoman is all for the Egyptian democracy as long as no opponents of Israel are allowed to play any role in government and as long as relations with Israel stay the same as they were under Mubarak. That view of Egypt, of course, assumes that it is not really a fully independent, sovereign country, and it reflects the type of foreign influence, once exercised by the British, that the Egyptians thought they had thrown off in the first half of the 20th century. (“Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Egypt’s future: Reject the Muslim Brotherhood,” by Lesley Clark, Miami Herald, Naked Politics blog, February 11, 2011)
But one might reasonably wonder how Israel’s fear of democracy in Egypt squares with the pro-democracy position taken by the neoconservatives, which was supported by Israel. In that case, democracy was basically a weapon to be used against those autocratic regimes that were enemies of Israel in order to bring about their removal. Any governments that might emerge would probably be no more hostile to Israel than the previous autocratic regimes.
Moreover, it was widely believed by both the Israeli Right and the neoconservatives that the autocratic regimes maintained the national unity of their countries, and that if the regimes were eliminated as a result of war, the countries would fragment into warring sectarian and ethnic groups, thus greatly diminishing any future threat to Israel. That would seem to be the case in Iraq, which since the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime has broken up into antagonistic factions of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. In some indefinite future it might be to Israel’s advantage to have all of its neighbors fragmented and weakened; but at the present time, stable nation-states that serve to advance Israel’s interests are most valuable in their existing form.
With the toppling of Mubarak’s regime, what is Israel’s position toward post-Mubarak Egypt likely to be? First, working through its lobby, Israel will try to ensure that Egypt retains its favorable policy toward Israel. Since that would be unlikely for any authentically democratic government expressing the public’s will, it would be essential to have a post-Mubarak political system strongly influenced by the military elite. Undoubtedly, that elite would intend to maintain its privileged status in Egyptian society — which has allowed high military officials to amass considerable wealth and power — and that status would likely be threatened in a democratic, civilian-run government.
In short, the interests of the military elite and Israel overlap. The fact that the United States provides Egypt with more than $1.3 billion in military aid annually, appropriated by a Congress under the sway of the Israel Lobby, provides the lobby considerable leverage over the Egyptian military (a military that has close ties with its Israeli counterpart) and, concomitantly, considerable leverage over Egyptian policy toward Israel. Of course, the people of Egypt who had the power to remove Mubarak probably possess the power to shape foreign policy toward Israel if they put forth a sustained effort, but it is unlikely that sufficient concern about this one particular issue would arise if the post-Mubarak political system brought about political improvements domestically.
Israel would also be protected from any Egyptian anti-Israel policy if the post-Mubarak political system proved dysfunctional and the military stepped in to run the state, returning to something like Mubarakism without Mubarak. Should Egypt break up into warring factions, it would no longer be able to help Israel, but on the other hand it would not be able to pursue policies detrimental to Israeli interests.
Israeli fear of democratic revolution in Egypt has been understandable from the perspective of Zionism. The Egyptian revolution, which itself was inspired by the successful revolution in Tunisia, has already inspired incipient revolutionary outbreaks in other autocratic Arab states — Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan — and will possibly spread throughout the entire Middle East region, affecting the oil producers of the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. In most of those countries the rulers are less hostile to Israel — often paying mere lip service to the cause of the Palestinians — than are the people as a whole. We should note that revolutionary upheaval also threatens the Palestinian authority, which is likewise undemocratic, corrupt, and more pro-Israel than its alternative. (See “Why the Palestinian Authority Is Worried about Egypt,” by Karl Vick, Time, February 5, 2011.)
If many of the countries were to have democratic revolutions leading to governments more hostile to Israel, how would that affect the Jewish state? The danger facing Israel would not be war since it has a sophisticated military machine, including nuclear weapons, that dwarfs the combined power of all of its neighbors. Moreover, Israel is capable of handling the most serious terrorist threats. Instead, the greatest danger involves vastly increased negative publicity; more hostile world opinion, including Western opinion; greater pressure from international bodies such as the UN; and delegitimization. For what provides Israel its strength in the West, especially in the United States, is the image that it is morally superior to its enemies — that right is on its side. Israel’s supporters go to great lengths to bolster that reputation. It rests on the fact that pro-Zionists have controlled the discourse in the United States and in much of the rest of the West.
The moral stature of nascent Middle East democracies would put great weight behind their charges against Israel of violating human rights, charges that Israel and its partisans would find much more difficult to combat than the same charges coming from autocratic regimes. When made by the latter, the effective pro-Israel riposte is simply to lambaste the non-democratic, brutal nature of Israel’s enemies. Israel is good by comparison, making it unnecessary to dwell on the specific charges of its brutality. Thus, Israel has been able to maintain its favored status in the West, especially the United States, by claiming that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. In essence, the moral defense of Israel rests heavily on the lack of other democracies in the region.
Israel’s effective defense by comparison, therefore, would be weakened if the Jewish state were confronted by democratic countries — especially ones that had captured the imagination of the world. With accusations coming from those who had the moral stature to make such charges, the focus would be placed on the actual activities of Israel: To what extent does it really practice democracy and uphold human rights? And it would be difficult for Israel and its partisans to hide the fact that the political essence of the nation is not democracy and the defense of universal human rights but that Israel is instead, fundamentally, a Jewish supremacist state in which Palestinians can exist only as a subordinated group in Israel proper as well as in the occupied territories. While many Westerners feel a moral need to protect a democratic society and the lives of Israeli Jews from radical Islamists, many fewer would feel a moral need to guarantee Jewish supremacy over Palestinians. The diminishing of U.S. support for Israel would be apt to lead, ultimately, to the delegitimization of Israel and its becoming, in the eyes of the world, a pariah state like the former white-ruled South Africa.
The Jewish exclusivist state, however, could not continue to exist if it provided the Palestinians full civil and political rights within Israel proper and allowed for the creation of a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state that would essentially encompass all the land within the pre-1967 boundaries, entailing full control of that area’s vital resources — most importantly water — and borders.
In the past few years the Israeli government and its supporters have expressed serious concern about the grave danger of Israel’s being delegitimized, and have been planning and taking preventive measures. They have already begun to try to use the revolutionary impulse against Israel’s enemies, Syria and Iran, and it is likely that they will substantially increase their efforts to get the United States to increase its use of propaganda and other means, including military aid to opposition elements, in that endeavor. If such an approach did not actually lead to the overthrow of those regimes, highlighting those countries could, at least, serve to divert attention away from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the all-important U.S. media. One can already see that theme in the American mainstream media, as commentators discuss how the revolution for democracy might affect the regimes in Iran and Syria, with nary a mention of its possible impact on Israel’s undemocratic control over the beleaguered Palestinians.
If the United States had complete control of the situation, that approach might work, but in the global media age, such a monopoly of discourse is unattainable. Most Middle Easterners are far more interested in liberating their brethren
from Israeli domination than in bringing about regime-change in Iran or Syria. And with the new global media, which demonstrated their power so saliently in the Egyptian democratic revolution, the United States cannot isolate its own citizenry from foreign sources of information. Therefore it seems that if the Egyptian revolution and the revolutionary efforts in progress elsewhere in the Middle East reach fruition, the existence of a Jewish exclusivist state will be rendered far more tenuous.
From the perspective of Israel’s interests, Israel and its supporters were correct in hoping that the revolution would be quashed in Egypt, but then democracy is far from being implemented there, much less in the other still-autocratic states of the Middle East. That being so, there is still plenty of time for Israel and its supporters to find ways to derail and discredit it.