by Stephen J. Sniegoski
Author’s Prologue: I write this article as the bottoms-up Egyptian democratic revolution has just brought down what had seemed until very recently to be the solid regime of Hosni Mubarak. It was an amazing accomplishment achieved by the power of the whole people—something that is often sloganized but never realized. And the fact that this was accomplished without violence on the part of the revolutionaries is equally amazing. While one can only admire the courage and tenacity of the Egyptian people and take pleasure in their jubilation, it is also necessary to look at the ongoing realities, with the recognition that the process is only beginning, and that there are intelligent minds, cold, calculating, and totally unsympathetic to the aspirations of the common people of the Middle East, who are already developing sophisticated strategies to thwart its fruition.
Despite the usual mantra about Israel 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 Middle East. The fact that it is a state based on Jewish exclusivity means that it must treat the 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 goes far beyond the boundaries of historic Palestine. Israeli leaders are terrified that this democratic revolution might bring about a radical change in Egypt’s foreign policy, since Mubarak had acquiesced to and actually in some ways facilitated Israel’s regional hegemony, which the general public neither in Egypt nor anywhere else in the Middle East would voluntarily support.
The same would apply to many of the other autocratic friends of the U.S. 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 is showing the potential of spreading throughout the region, which 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. In this horror story scenario, the Muslim Brotherhood has been presented as the likely ultimate alternative to the Mubarak dictatorship. The Brotherhood allegedly would make use of democratic procedures to gain power, but once it took power 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 the nation, nor is there evidence that it would have the power to do so even if it wanted. The actual uprising was led by young secularists, and among the hundreds of thousands of protestors, there was virtually no mention of political Islam, but rather 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 would be cowed into submission by shadowy Islamists who would somehow emerge out of nowhere.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert, in a sympathetic account of Israel’s fears, 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: “But 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.” Not only did Egypt sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, which set the stage for other Middle East countries to normalize their relations with the Jewish state, but the Mubarak regime 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.”
An Egyptian government shaped by popular opinion is apt to be concerned about the nation’s dignity, as many of the Egyptian protestors emphasized, and thus will avoid being servile toward Israel’s interests. It is very likely to pursue a quite different policy in which it might contest Israel’s nuclear policy, refuse to collude in Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza, and demand 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 this was the case before his fall from power. And certainly American leaders, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice-President Joe 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 it listed alleged abuses ranging from electroshock to sodomy.
During the past decade, the U.S. has relied on Egypt to interrogate terror suspects via extraordinary rendition. The Egyptian coordinator of this 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, Mubarak managed to make use of his power over the government to amass immense wealth for his family, estimated at $40 billion to $70 billion, which is believed to be kept in banks outside of Egypt. (Switzerland announced it has frozen his account in that country.) This government 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 has 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 U.S. mainstream media about the danger of unrest in the country, the Egyptian revolution, so far, would seem to be one of the most non-violent in history, and significantly less violent than the American, which even at its outset included mob action directed by the “Sons of Liberty”–which included the practice of pouring boiling tar on people who disagreed with their measures.
Now the United States quite readily supported tyrants during the Cold War under the rationale that American security was at stake. Supporting petty dictators would presumably prevent the victory of a much broader and thorough Communist totalitarian hegemony that would seriously endanger U.S.. security. And the U.S. stance here was not an aberration since in World War II the U.S. had supported Stalinist Russia, one of the most repressive regimes ever to exist, in order to defeat Nazi Germany. But the idea of 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 Nazi Germany during World War II. Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany were both superpowers, whereas the caliphate does not even exist.
Moreover, there is no reason to see how support for the Mubarak dictatorship or any dictatorship in Egypt actually served vital U.S. interests. U.S. support for Mubarak certainly helped Israel, and would seem to become an American interest only by virtue of the U.S. support for Israel, which results from the efforts of the Israel lobby. Vice President Joe 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, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.”
With the downfall of Mubarak, America’s position on Egypt still seems to revolve around the interests of Israel. For example, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, 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.” These “international obligations,” of course, pertain to the 1979 peace accord with Israel.
Moreover, 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.” So in short, Congressperson Ros-Lehtinen is all for the Egyptian democracy as long as no opponents of Israel are allowed to play a role in any government and relations with Israel stay the same as they did under Mubarak. This view of Egypt, of course, assumes that it is not really a fully independent, sovereign country, and is 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.
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 would possibly emerge would not likely be more hostile to Israel than the existing 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. This would seem to be the case for Iraq, which since the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime has broken up into antagonistic 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 more valuable in their existing form.
With the downfall of Mubarak’s regime, what is likely to be Israel’s position toward post-Mubarak Egypt? First, working through its lobby, Israel will try to insure that Egypt retains its favorable policy toward Israel. Since this would be unlikely in any authentically democratic government that expressed the public’s will, it would be essential to have a post-Mubarak political system strongly influenced by the military elite. Undoubtedly, the military elite would intend to maintain its privileged status in Egyptian society—which has allowed high military officials to amass considerable wealth and power—and this 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 U.S. provides Egypt with over $1.3 billion in military aid annually, appropriated by a Congress under the sway of the Israel lobby, provides the latter considerable leverage over the Egyptian military—which has close ties with its Israeli counterpart–and concomitantly 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 there would be sufficient concern about this one particular issue 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 proves dysfunctional and the military steps in to run the state, returning to something like Mubarakism without Mubarak. And should Egypt break up into warring factions, it would not be able help Israel, but, on the hand, it would not be able to pursue policies detrimental to Israeli interests, either.
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—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 these countries the rulers are less hostile to Israel—often paying only lip service to the cause of the Palestinians—than are the people as a whole. (It should be added that revolutionary upheaval also threatens the Palestinian authority, which is likewise undemocratic, corrupt, and more pro-Israel than its alternative.)
Assuming that many of these countries do have democratic revolutions that lead 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 this reputation. The success of all of this stems from the fact that pro-Zionists have controlled the discourse in the U.S., and much of the West.
The moral stature of nascent Middle East democracies would put great weight behind their charges against Israel for violating human rights, making it much more difficult for Israel and its partisans to combat than when such charges have been brandished by autocratic regimes. When made by the latter the effective pro-Israel riposte is simply a counterattack against 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 the claim 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, thus, would be diminished if it were confronted by democratic countries—and especially ones that have captured the imagination of the world. With accusations coming from accusers who have the moral stature to make such charges, the focus would be placed on the actual activities of Israel and to what extent it really does allow for democracy and human rights. And it would be difficult for Israel and its partisans to hide the fact that the essence of Israel is not democracy and universal human rights but rather that it is fundamentally a Jewish supremacist state, in which Palestinians can only exist as a subordinated group in Israel proper as well as the occupied territories. While many westerners see the moral need to protect a democratic society and the lives of Israeli Jews from radical Islamists, many fewer would feel the moral need to guarantee Jewish supremacy over Palestinians. The effect of diminishing U.S. support for Israel ultimately would be apt to lead 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 (which would entail full control of that area’s vital resources—most importantly water—and borders.)
The Israeli government and its supporters have in the past few years expressed serious concern about the grave danger of Israel being delegitimized, and have been planning and taking preventive measures. They have already begun to try to channel the democratic revolution toward Israel’s enemies, Syria and Iran, and will likely 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 this 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 United States media. One can already see elements of this in the American mainstream media where 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 U.S. had complete control of the situation this approach might work, but in this global media age, such a monopoly of the 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 its power so saliently in the Egyptian democratic revolution, the United States cannot isolate its citizenry from foreign sources of information. Therefore it would seem that if the Egyptian revolution, and the other revolutionary efforts in the Middle East now in incipient stages, reach fruition, the effect would be to make the existence of a Jewish exclusivist state 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 in Egypt, much less in the other still autocratic states of the Middle East, and thus there is still plenty of time for Israel and its supporters to find ways to derail and discredit it.