Saturday, February 05, 2011

On Israel and Midan al-Tahrir

I understand the concern among many Israelis and within the Jewish community in the US about events in Egypt just as I understand the fears that too sudden an access of democracy in Egypt will bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power which will more or less inevitably (so the argument goes) lead to a denunciation of the Camp David Accords and the creation of a solid bloc of Arab enmity against the Jewish state and, probably in collaboration with Hamas in Gaza if not with Fatah in the West Bank, the elimination of Israel in a paroxysm of war.


I understand those fears just as I understand those Americans who have been reluctant to do anything (as opposed to saying anything) to further weaken the regime. Mubarak has been our ally for 30 years and it would be at best unseemly and at worse wrong and unwise to abandon him at the first sign of trouble. We should, at least, wait a bit before abandoning him.


I understand those fears and concerns and as with all deeply felt understandings of politics I am far from telling those who hold them that they should simply dismiss them. They cannot.


What I fail to understand is the construction of Mubarak and his regime as being in any sense friendly to Israel or even a solid support for the Israeli state. Mubarak, as far as I can tell, no more cares for Israel than do most Egyptians and his regime has been as hostile to Israeli society and Israelis as any other element in Egypt.


As far as I can tell Mubarak, in 30 years, has visited Israel once very briefly: to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Unlike Sadat he never addressed the Knesset nor has he shown any interest even in reciprocating state visits that Israeli leaders paid to Egypt. The Egyptian government (though perhaps personally not all of its high officials) has been unremittingly hostile to Israel through the print media, the television, and indeed the efforts of its police. Egyptian movies abound in descriptions of evil Israelis who kidnap, torture, or otherwise abuse good-hearted Egyptians and (more rarely) Palestinians.


So much is this the case that it has even become a bit of a joke among young middle-class Egyptians. In one film, an Egyptian is kidnapped to Israel as part of a nefarious and complicated plot. Managing to escape, the Egyptian hero then attempts the complex journey back to the homeland. Yet, as some Egyptian viewers noted, why doesn’t he just go to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv which, as far as the movie is concerned, doesn’t exist. In other words, in the Egypt of Husni Mubarak although official Egypt has diplomatic relations with Israel this is not permitted to be part of the normal imaginative or cognitive map of ordinary Egyptians. And this is the regime on which the Israeli government wishes to rely?


The Muslim Brotherhood has said that they would abrogate the peace treaty. Some of my academic friends—people I respect—say the Brotherhood has by now become a different political force than they once were. They are now liberals or perhaps social democrats who simply happen to pray in the direction of Mecca. Others tell me that the Muslim Brotherhood are nothing of the kind: they are blood-thirsty fanatics who can hardly wait to get out of their confining suits and ties, don traditional robes and turbans and slit the throats of infidels.


For the moment let me simply state an argument I’ll make at length in another post. The question for now in Egypt is not whether the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power. The army is not, for its own reasons, going to let that happen. The question for now is whether there can be any significant changes in the rules governing a hierarchical and authoritarian military system that has been in place since 1952 and that fought its own wars with Israel when it pleased and made peace when it pleased and that obstructed Israeli policy in Gaza when it pleased and cooperated to make it more effective when it pleased.


And the reason it pleased to do what it did in the years since Anwar Sadat, himself an authoritarian leader, came to power after Abdel Nasser died has to do with some home truths (is this what my professors from the land of international relations call “realism”?). Egyptians got tired of doing most of the dying in wars with Israel; Egyptians got tired of facing the destructive barrage of the Israeli war machine in the pursuit of the chimera of Arab nationalism; Egyptians got tired of paying the price for the inflated and irresponsible rhetoric of military regimes that proved to be incompetent at doing what they claimed to do best: defending the national borders.


Egyptians got tired but that doesn’t mean they decided that the Israelis were their best friends (in the period before texting nobody even thought about the possibility of BFF). The best construction you can put on local feelings is that most Egyptians find Israeli policies toward the Palestinians in West Bank and especially Gaza somewhere between repellent and abhorrent.


But would a democratic Egyptian government be more inflexibly anti-Israeli than the present government? If you think of a democratic government as one that carries out the will of majority regardless of any other considerations (the will of the minority, prudence, the role of interest groups), then that might be the case. I notice that both the left and right in the US seem to wave the flag of anti-Israeli Islamism in the face of any government initiatives in support of democracy.


But if by democracy we meant something that many Egyptians have had in mind and have even experienced in the past 10 days then things might be different. Not immediately but perhaps—and let me underline that perhaps—in the longer run. What if by democracy we meant a system that allowed for and even encouraged the expression of pluralism in society: religious pluralism, political pluralism, and social pluralism. Israel would not become any more popular tomorrow but at least those who wanted to visit it, to describe—for worse as well as for better—what they saw, and to discuss what would be the most appropriate policies for achieving what many here want—recognition of a Palestinian state with its own secure borders and the end of Israeli settlements in the West Bank—would all have the opportunity to do so. Israelis have long complained of the so-called “Cold Peace” in which the interests of security state in Egypt have led it to cooperate with the Israeli security establishment but in which Israelis themselves remain largely unwelcome and unknown. A state committed not to a single inflexible and hierarchical truth but to the recognition of the plural nature of Egyptian society could not but make a wider discussion possible since the existing discussion is so extremely narrow.


Such an Egypt would, of course, put far more pressure on Israel than does the present government to change its policies. It might, depending on exactly what political and social forces upheld it, also be a far more powerful agent for change in Israeli policy than is the present government. For the moment, in other words, within Israel itself the notion that security is congruent with settlement in the West Bank remains a plausible political argument. That would be a more difficult argument to uphold if their interlocutor was a democratic government in Egypt committed both to peace and to Palestinian statehood rather than an authoritarian dictatorship. It is not so clear to me, in fact, that such a government would necessarily want to abrogate the treaty; it might simply, instead, insist that it has not yet been implemented and indeed that the Israeli government had a variety of obligations to which it could be expected to conform. (NB: the counter claim that the Israeli government would make that the PA and the PLO have obligations they have not upheld does not apply to the Egyptian-Israeli accords since it is clear that the Egyptian government has carried out its obligations under its treaty with Israel).


So, although I am far from religious, let me put this in terms that bring together both popular, contemporary Egyptian and traditional Jewish imagery. Why exactly is it that the security of the Jewish state is achieved by relying on Pharaoh?

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