So a secular, Western-leaning Middle Eastern country with an authoritarian ruler and openly linked to Israel is beset by mobs of its own citizens calling for the overthrow of their own dictatorship. Where have we seen this story before ? Iran, circa 1979. There is an uncanny resemblance between that Iran and today’s Egypt, even in the “blessings” bestowed on each by American leaders (Jimmy Carter praised Iran as an “island of stability” just a month before demonstrations erupted, and Hillary Clinton declared the Mubarak government “stable,” just one week before he announced he will not seek re-election.) More importantly, Egypt’s fate is likely to be remarkably similar to that of Iran.
The riots in Egypt are not rooted in a coherent and uniform message. The protests originated, typically for the region, over an increase in the price of bread, an economic catastrophe in a poor kleptocracy in which more than half the population lives in poverty and subsists on less that $2 per day, and the ruling elite enrich themselves at the public’s expense. But the peasants were joined by opponents of the brutality of the Egyptian regime and its secret police, most ominously by the radical Muslim Brotherhood (the terrorist group that has spawned Hamas and Hezbollah and has roots in Al Qaeda), and fatuously by individuals calling for “democracy” and “freedom” – those mostly Western journalists and the handful of Egyptian elitists who feed them information that they naively swallow and disseminate. Suffice it to say, democracy – not at all indigenous to the Middle East and completely unknown in that region outside of Israel – is the least likely outcome of the turmoil in Egypt. A true democracy in Egypt is as likely as Hosni Mubarak succeeding Shimon Peres as president of Israel.
Recent history in the region demonstrates that, given the choice, Arabs will vote for an even more repressive dictatorship than the one they rejected in the streets. “Democracy” is limited to voting, but has not been extended to such basic concepts as individual liberties, protection of minority rights, and an independent judiciary. That has been the reality in Gaza and Lebanon, and elsewhere. Even where they overthrew their jailers, they immediately voted for a new jailer, as much as testimony to the incongruity of freedom in that part of the world as it is to the inchoate human desire for stability, security, and, yes, bread.
In Iran, for all the talk of democracy and opposition to the Shah’s oppression, it took only a few months for the “people” to vote for an Islamic theocracy. Note that, as is likely in Egypt, the Islamic rulers did not assume power immediately. There was an intervening “secular” leader – the pro-democracy Mehdi Bazargan – who stepped down when the US Embassy in Teheran was sacked in November 1979. Change the name and place to Mohammed El-Baradei in today’s Egypt, and a similar scenario unfolds – a figurehead who holds power and lulls the world to sleep while the radical Muslims plot their ascension.
This el-Baradei is a character in his own right, Noble Peace Prize winner (but, then again, so was Yasser Arafat) for his “work” in not discovering the Iranian nuclear program. He thus has solid Western credentials (awards and acclaim with no accomplishments). And even though he has not lived in Egypt for decades, and has no base of support, he will be a useful foil for radical forces as they gradually seize control of Egypt.
There are ironies in this affair, as well as a lesson that must be learned and implemented. Despite the rhetoric about the police/military not firing on protesters, well over 100 Egyptians have already been killed since the beginning of the revolution. I recall very well the oleaginous, contemptuous words that Mubarak spat at Israel when Israel was attempting to suppress the Arab civil war in Israel – how violence was disgraceful, how Israel must stop using lethal force against unarmed demonstrators, about human rights, the children, the innocent, the occupation, etc. That the shoe is now on his face – and he responds with typical brutality (granted, it could have been worse) – only points out the utter hypocrisy of his earlier complaints.
Additionally, reports of the looting of the Egypt National Museum and the theft of antiquities by some of the demonstrators (obviously, the cultured ones) recall the sneering criticism lobbed at President Bush, who apparently should have prevented Iraqis from stealing the valuables from Baghdad’s museums. Clearly, though, one cannot have greater respect for a nation’s cultural past – than citizens of that nation. And, it is astonishing how quickly events turn, and nations are transformed. Just six months before the Shah fled, the CIA reported that Iran was not “in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” The Soviet Union seemingly collapsed suddenly. Who would have thought – even two weeks ago – that Egyptian-Americans in Astoria, Queens would be marching in the streets and chanting for Mubarak’s overthrow ? Who even knew there were Egyptian-Americans – and Mubarak enemies – in Astoria, Queens ? There is a spontaneity, a suddenness to the downfall, a snowball effect in street revolutions – and, I can’t help thinking, the hidden hand of Iran, Egypt’s main rival for supremacy in the Muslim world – an Iran, no doubt alarmed by the Wikileaks disclosures that Mubarak was actively campaigning for America or Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
All of which points to the inherent instability of the dictatorship, which always resembles an earthquake before the ground is sundered: a veneer of stability that conceals extreme turbulence underneath the surface. That is why negotiations with dictatorships are usually futile and self-destructive. Israel is living – as always – through very anxious moments, as the fate of its treaty with Egypt hangs in the balance. There is always an asymmetry in negotiations between democracies and dictatorships. A democracy can never repudiate a treaty signed by a predecessor government, because it is the government that is the symbol of continuity and not any particular person. Thus, Yitzchak Shamir voted against the Israel-Egypt treaty as a member of Knesset, but honored it as prime minister, as did President Reagan and the Panama Canal Treaty. But a treaty with a dictator is a treaty with one person, and whether that treaty survives that person is always a gamble. Mubarak honored Sadat’s treaty, even though he ushered in the coldest peace imaginable and never even visited Israel in his 30 years in power (except briefly for the Rabin funeral). Will Mubarak’s successor honor the treaty ? In the short term, undoubtedly, but in the longer term – even one or two years from now ? Don’t bet on it, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood seizes control of the government officially or unofficially. If so, count on the discovery of a list of Israeli “breaches” of the agreement that enable the Egyptians to renounce it.
Two democracies will always honor treaties with each other. The actions of a dictatorship are always speculative, based on the whims of one man. The bigger danger that emerges from such asymmetrical negotiations is that the democracy – i.e., Israel – always winds up trading away tangible assets in exchange for words and promises. Israel relinquished to Egypt substantial territory – the Sinai Peninsula and its strategic depth, and vital material assets – the Abu Rodeis oil fields, all in exchange for intangible verbiage on a piece of paper. Will Egypt post-Mubarak continue to sell oil and natural gas to Israel, as per the terms of the treaty ? Will Egypt maintain its demilitarization of Sinai ? Will it move its forces into Sinai to test Israel and its patience ? Who knows ?
What a democracy gives up in such negotiations is very hard to retrieve, and what it gains is very easily lost. Yet, Israel finds itself in the same position regarding the never-ending “peace” process with the Palestinians, with the advantage that Israel already knows that its interlocutor does not fulfill its commitments under the various treaties signed – and yet it still hungers for more agreements. The instability of the Egyptian dictatorship demonstrates the futility and menace of continued negotiations with the Palestinian dictatorship. But is there a way to express this in diplomatese that makes it obvious to the neutral third-party (if there are any such left) or to the Israeli public ?
It is also ironic that because of the treaty with Israel, Mubarak was deprived of the staple of his fellow Arab dictators – distracting the masses from their miserable lives by inciting them against Israel and blaming Israel for all Arab woes. The Arab potentate – think Assad, father and son, for example – is skilled at fomenting hatred towards Israel as a release valve for pent-up frustration. The treaty deprived Mubarak of that option.
Some might argue that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty was still worthwhile, because it bought 30 years of non-aggression, and there is a compelling logic to that argument. Most Israelis have grown up with a “peaceful” Egypt. But, even aside from the basic principle that no country should ever return to an aggressor territory that it won in a defensive war against that aggressor, it is clear that such treaties will not endure. Ultimately, though, the price is paid, and when it is paid, it is especially deadly and disheartening. It is true that one can only make peace with enemies, and one can’t choose one’s enemies – but it is also true that one can’t always enter into a true peace with an enemy, especially an enemy that does not identify with cherished values such as freedom, liberty and individual rights.
That will be the true measure of the Arab world, but that day is far off, notwithstanding the sincere but misguided efforts in this direction of President Bush. So Israel is in for some difficult days – but it will manage well if it learns from this debacle the perils of asymmetrical negotiations. It will manage even better if it remains true to our heritage and worthy of Divine Providence, in these most interesting times.