In all the clamour about demonstrations and possible change of regime in Egypt one of the loudest voices urging the continuation of the Mubarak government is Israel. Other newspapers throughout the region have already adopted the “Hosni who?” attitude while the Israelis are lambasting the United States for greasing the skids under Mubarak’s exit. Their attitude seems to be ‘Better the devil you know than the unknown.’
The comments that Israeli Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara made to former Arkansas governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee were typical. Counting on Huckabee’s complete ignorance of the Middle East, Kara pushed every terrorist threat button he could think of to warn about events in Egypt. Many Israelis detest President Obama in the first place, and Kara wasted no time criticizing Obama for ‘turning his back on’ long-time US ally Mubarak. The fact that Obama may be opening up to a much wider Egyptian constituency was conveniently overlooked.
Kara’s comments were surpassed by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv. In an article headlined “A Bullet In The Back From Uncle Sam” Pohoryles accused Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of following a ‘naïve’ policy in the Egypt. All of this seems very odd coming from a country that proclaims loudly that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Is it naïve to think such a country might actually welcome other democracies in the region rather than support autocrats? Or perhaps it doesn’t want to lose the distinction of being the sole democracy?
The Israeli hysteria is based on the possibility that a radical Islamic regime would replace Mubarak who, at the very least, kept the peace with Israel for 30 years. The Israelis must be aware that this very cold peace was unloved by the Egyptian people, and they remember all too well that former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated for making that peace. In short, they don’t care who suppresses the Egyptian people as long as someone does, and keeps Egypt from becoming a major problem for Israel. It’s one thing to beat up on the Palestinians, but it’s a problem of another magnitude to deal with a large, potentially hostile army sitting on your border.
The fact that Obama has moved to put the United States on the right side of the seismic shifts occurring in the Middle East is lost on the Israelis who are determined to frighten Americans by turning every Egyptian protestor into an Islamic terrorist bogeyman. But in reality it is far from clear what or who will follow the Mubarak regime.
It is very interesting, as noted by Turkish columnist Ahmed Hakan, that the protestors have not been waving placards covered with sayings of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Moslem Brotherhood who was assassinated in 1949, or Sayyid Qutb, whose writings inspired many of the radicals who founded Al Qaeda and who was executed by Nasser in 1966. It appears that the speed and scope of the demonstrations have taken the Islamists by surprise, and they have not yet figured out how to play the popular discontent.
It would foolish to underestimate the strength of the well-entrenched Egyptian establishment who, together with the army, may, just may, be able to manage the transition to a more representative government that will not be dominated by the Islamists. Egypt is not the Shah’s Iran, and is unlikely to crack as easily.
One humorous result of the Egyptian unrest is to put Saudi Arabia and Israel on the same side for once. The Saudi royal family has been sending ‘Hang-In-There-Hosni’ messages lest the contagion of democracy spread to Saudi Arabia. The Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir has yet to be heard from, but Syrian leader Bashir Assad is trying to pre-empt a Cairo moment in Syria by calling for reforms.
While the Turkish leaders are justifiably proud of the democracy they inherited, they have never shown much enthusiasm for the spread of that democracy to the rest of the Middle East. When the ruling Justice and Development Party is not singing the praises of Sudan and Syria it is busy snuggling up to rich, autocratic regimes in hopes that they will spend some of their petro-wealth in Turkey. The loudest support in Turkey for the Egyptian protestors so far has come from the Islamic groups demonstrating in front of Istanbul’s Fatih Cami in a very conservative section of the city.
Much of the Turkish press is revelling in schadenfreude as it watches its main rival for affection in the Middle East struggle to maintain an even keel. “Too bad, Hosni, sorry to see you in so much trouble.” Tony Soprano could not have said it better. Others are adopting a more balanced tone noting that Turkey could well become a model for those in the region trying to balance the seemingly irreconcilable demands of Islam and secular democracy.
The Israeli fears are mirrored exactly in Richard Cohen's column in today's Washington Post. He seems to believe that the only choice in Egypt is between the autocratic Mubarak regime and chaos. This type of cataclysmic thinking is not helpful or accurate. Change is coming to Egypt whether Cohen and the United States like it or not. At this point it really is out of the hands of any foreign country to control. The only question is how successfully the United States and others ride this wave.