For the past week, Israel’s news broadcasts have focused on the situation in Egypt. Just over a week ago, millions of Egyptian citizens took the streets in Cairo and all over the country, calling for the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi is the head of the Muslim Brotherhood and in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of 2011, was elected president of Egypt after his party won the largest bloc of seats in the Egyptian parliament. His is an Islamist party which calls for the adoption of Sharia law throughout the Muslim world. His party is anti-Western, although Morsi has had to make accommodations to enable the US to continue providing much-needed financial aid to the country’s collapsing economy. Representatives of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood are behind forces of instability in many countries throughout the Arab world, including among the rebel forces in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization of the Hamas in Gaza.
From the beginning of the Arab unrest more than two years ago, many in the west, and especially President Obama, identified the unrest as a call for greater democracy and liberty. While there were and continue to be Egyptians and others in the Arab world who truly desire a freer society, democratic values are not well known nor understood in the Middle East. Indeed, in many cases, it is the most undemocratic forces in the area who study the principles of democracy well in order to manipulate the weaknesses of democracy to obtain their own undemocratic ends.
Egypt is a case in point. For decades, Mubarak governed Egypt with an iron hand. There was no freedom of the press and the political process was far from free. But Mubarak was determined to restrain the Muslim Brotherhood, because he understood that their particular brand of totalitarianism would create far more instability than his. It was the Muslim Brotherhood who assassinated Sadat, who supported terrorist groups in Gaza and in Egypt and who represented the most extreme of Islamist ideology. They were Mubarak’s enemies and many rotted in his jails.
When the Egyptians took to the streets two years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was the most organized of the political and social groups in Egypt and they were the ones most ready to mount an election campaign. As President Obama announced his betrayal of staunch US ally, Mubarak, because of this corruptness and lack of democratic values, the Muslim Brotherhood was taking advantage of one of the hallmarks of democracy, free elections, to gain power. Little attention was paid in the western media to the fact that while the Muslim Brotherhood favored free elections, their political agenda was anything but democratic.
That did become clear as debates over the Egyptian constitution reached a boiling point and the truly democratic minority in Egypt withdrew from the constitutional committee because of the farce it had become. Unrest built as Morsi tried to force his brand of Islam down the throats of Egyptians and finally chaos erupted once more last week. The army stepped in, another non-democratic institution (by definition) and forced Morsi’s resignation. Today’s paper tells us that the US is pressuring the army to continue holding dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Once again, it seems as if the US confuses democratic processes with democratic values. And pursuing the former in a society that has not fully assimilated the latter is a recipe for disaster. It reminds me of the rhetoric we heard several years ago in the US with regard to Iran. Upon assuming office for the first time, Obama called for frank discussions with Ahmedinejad, refusing to understand that the western propensity for discussion is viewed by our totalitarian neighbors as a vehicle for buying time.
Free elections carry no value if they produce a non-democratic government. And in countries where democracy has not been carefully adopted and absorbed by the people, chaos is often mistakenly identified as democracy and freedom. Another example from just last week in Egypt: As millions took to the streets, there is no question that they expressed their desire for change in a direct and unmistakable way. But democracy is based on representation – elections for parliament or president which then conveys the power of the people to the elected representatives who run the country. A country which changes its leadership based on how many people take to the streets, is an unstable country. Indeed, Morsi’s supporters also took to the streets and today, a few days after Morsi was deposed, his supporters are fighting with his opponents in the streets and only the army, a very undemocratic force, is preventing further bloodshed. But the story gets worse. Those in the streets demonstrating for freedom suffered terribly at the hands of those who took advantage of the chaos. It is said that dozens of woman were raped or sexually harassed while protesting on the streets of Cairo. This is not a society ready for democracy.
There is a huge problem in our area and western analysts are just beginning to understand it. But as residents of this crazy neighborhood for more than 65 years, Israelis are far more cynical about the chances of our neighbors adopting democracy anytime soon. We live in an area where religious fanaticism is growing, where violence is not only condoned but applauded, where strength is measured by destruction rather than by courage and the pursuit of a valued existence. Civil war rages in Syria and may well be spilling over into Turkey and Jordan. As the various countries in the Middle East take sides in the Syrian conflict, it is shaping up as a Sunni / Shiite conflict, bringing to the fore extremist religious passions with roots in the early days of Islam. It is the past that shapes the passions of the region, not the hope for a better tomorrow.
Israel is an island of sanity in an ocean of chaos. All the more reason for us to guard against infiltrators from every side. As US Secretary of State John Kerry prepares for yet another trip to Israel, to try and jump-start talks between Israel and the Palestinians, we would all do well to take a good look around us. The Palestinians are no more democratic than their Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian neighbors and co-religionists. We dare not invite such chaos in our midst. And all countries who value democracy would do well to take caution. Democratic elections don’t necessarily usher in democracy, peace talks don’t necessarily usher in peace. Without the values of liberty, dignity and respect for your fellow man, without the profound belief that every human being was created in the image of G-d and that life is sacred, one side’s conversations will remain the other side’s cynical manipulations.