Are Egyptians the New Israelites?

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No one, save the Egyptians themselves, would like to see a truly democratic Egypt more than Israel.

A real democracy in the greatest Arab nation would be a dream come true. It would safeguard the calm coexistence of Egypt’s many parts: Muslims, academics, traditionalists, Facebook surfers. A real democracy would adhere to a modern constitution, sustain an independent judiciary, protect the Christian minority’s rights, respect dissidents, and stop persecuting homosexuals. It would combat widespread corruption, work to resuscitate Egypt’s crumbling economy, and find ways to feed and educate its poor. A real Egyptian democracy would never scrap peace with Israel in favor of renewed war.

But no one should be more concerned than the Israelis if a less-than-democratic Egypt emerges from the present turbulence.

There is a gut feeling in Israel that the protesters are enviably brave, and that their outrage is just. Ancient memories are stirring: did not biblical Israelites also defy a cruel Egyptian ruler in the first call for national freedom in human history? Aren’t present-day Egyptians echoing the timeless cry to a heartless leader, “Let my people go”? As a once oppressed people, Israelis are—or would like to be—as touched as all other global citizens by the human drama unfolding across the border.

So then why are many Israelis, from pundits to taxi drivers, so concerned about the situation? Are they so committed to Egypt’s aging autocrat, who kept a cold peace with Israel while oppressing his own nation? Why not side with the angels?

Because, tragically, the call for freedom might turn into a regional disaster. Already Iran’s spiritual leader is hailing Egypt’s fervor as an Islamic revolution and telling the Egyptian Army to turn its guns from Tahrir toward Israel. Anti-Mubarak posters show a Star of David on the president’s face. On the margins of the march for freedom, hatred may be brewing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hapless bid to buttress Mubarak is bound to backfire. It is both a pragmatic error and a moral failure. As political scientist Shlomo Avineri pointed out, it has created the false impression that three decades of Israeli-Egyptian peace have been a narrow, self-serving stratagem of Israel and Mubarak. As though peace is not a profound strategic asset of all Egyptians and Israelis.

Had Mubarak betrayed the peace signed by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s millions of university students would have been in Army uniforms today, facing off against their Israeli counterparts. They would have been huddled in battlefield barracks, not sitting in Internet cafés.

To be sure, Mubarak’s stabilizing role in the Mideast was cold comfort to his own malnourished people. His mediation between Israel and the Palestinians was not effective enough, and his cooperation with Israel over the closure of Gaza earned him few points on either side. Egyptians deserve a better leader. But they also deserve a peace-loving one.

Herein lies the worry. Democracies do not emerge fully equipped from ordinary people’s heartfelt protestations. Democracies need honest legislators, professional judges, incorruptible civil servants, and unbiased public-opinion makers. Such institutions will not grow out of the cracked pavement of Tahrir Square alone.

President Obama has omitted this truth from his statements on Egypt’s protest, just as his predecessors failed to mention it when they encouraged elections and majority rule in Iraq and in Gaza. The well-meaning West is egging on pseudo-democratic processes where majoritarian rhetoric trumps substantive democracy.

If Egypt’s revolution is usurped by the Muslim Brotherhood, the emergence of an autocratic strongman far worse than Mubarak will be only a matter of time. Egypt’s remilitarized Sinai border with Israel will flare up. With Iran on the brink of nuclear capability, Lebanon taken over by Hizbullah, and Syria and Jordan facing possible upheavals, the future Middle East will look like a boiling cauldron of uncertain politics and near-certain hostility.

One can only hope that the new Israelites are indeed the freedom fighters on Tahrir Square, the brave protesters, the tank-defying demonstrators. If they become the genuine face of a new Egypt, most Israelis would cheer them, rejoice with them, and take pride in being their neighbors.

Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli writer and historian, professor at the University of Haifa, and Leon Liberman chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University.

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