What are we to make of the latest events in Libya, where the feared and hated despot Muammar al-Qaddafi appears to be at the end of his long reign? Will the revolution there lead to unity and democracy or tribal warfare and chaos? And how will Qaddafi’s fate impact on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose continued defiance in spite of calls for his ouster is sure to garner even more attention now as the international spotlight turns to him?
As the Arab Spring has evolved into complex series of protests and uprisings, the only clarity is in recognizing that the Arab world is in a state of deep and disturbing confusion that will play itself out over an extended period of time.
An optimist will note that autocratic leaders have been replaced or put on notice that the will and needs of the people can no longer be ignored, and that the impulse for basic human dignities and freedom will prevail. A pessimist will insist that for all the drama of large-scale protests among citizens calling for modernized change, the end result in countries may be internal fighting or the rule of Islamic fundamentalists.
Certainly the political and military fate of Egypt is of great and immediate concern to Jerusalem and its supporters.
Last week’s violence underscored just how fragile relations are between Israel and Egypt. Even though the Netanyahu government and the temporary military leadership in Cairo recognized the need to pull back from the brink, it is clear that the worrisome level of anti-Israel sentiment among the population cannot be ignored. Even a moderate new government in Cairo will feel the need to balance the strategic and economic reasons for a stable Egypt-Israel relationship, with the desire to bend to the will of Egyptians who see Israel as the enemy.
In more specific terms, Israel is worried that the Sinai border, which had been carefully patrolled under President Mubarak, will become an increasingly dangerous flashpoint for stateless terrorists to inflame the region through acts of violence.
Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League and longtime bitter and outspoken critic of Israel, is a leading candidate for the Egyptian presidency, and his popularity is due in large measure to his well-known views on Jerusalem. There are also increasing indications that the Islamist parties, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, are gaining traction and are sure to play a key role in the future government.
Egyptians may not be missing Mubarak now, but more and more Israelis are.
That doesn’t mean that Israelis are opposed to greater democracy in the Arab world. On the contrary, they value, support and long for it. But they also recognize that ousting a despot doesn’t necessarily lead to an open society. We are still at the beginning of the process that began in Tunisia last winter and spread across the region. There is still great hope that the first steps toward true democracy have been taken by brave citizens in the Arab world. Now Western governments from Washington to Jerusalem must do what they can, more often behind the scenes, to support the cause. But there is a long way to go, and the outcome is far from certain.