Much has been written in recent days about Israel’s unease over the pro-democracy surge that led to the ouster of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak. Critics have accused the Jewish state of hypocrisy — always touting its status as a genuine democracy and arguing that peace can be made only with other democracies while tilting in favor of Mubarak’s repressive reign in the interests of security and stability.
Defenders say maintaining that stability is a critical Israeli interest — and that in Egypt’s case, it made sense to support the man who maintained the Camp David peace, however cold, throughout his 30-year reign.
As is so often the case in the Middle East, the truth is far more complex.
It’s easy to say that working closely with Mubarak over the years — and seemingly making Israel the only country that seems unhappy that he’s gone — is a gross violation of Israel’s democratic principles. But those principles exist uneasily in an environment in which change could ultimately endanger a peace treaty that has given Israel vital breathing room as it confronts other enemies old and new.
Any abrogation of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty would be a disaster for the Jewish state, as well as for Egypt, which would lose American economic, military and diplomatic support. Also disastrous would be the creation of an Islamic state on Israel’s border.
That said, such grim outcomes are far from inevitable. Egypt is a very different country from Iran in 1979. It is a largely secular nation, and Egypt’s Sunni Islam is less extreme and less political than the revolutionary Shia factions dominating Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood’s popular support is limited, though its primary goal of making first Egypt and then the entire region Islamic is deeply worrisome. The group’s moves must be watched closely, and Egypt’s efforts to create a democracy need to include guidelines regarding those parties allowed to participate.
So anxiety, yes. But not panic. Israel must be prepared for the worst, but it would be a mistake to assume the worst is inevitable and to alter Israeli policy toward Egypt accordingly at this point.
In the long term, Israel will have to find ways to reconcile its advocacy of democracy with its legitimate fear of Arab popular movements steeped in generations of anti-Israel incitement.
Similarly, U.S. policymakers must find better ways to balance the need for stability in this volatile region and the reality that propping up despots only fans the fires of anti-Americanism and extremism.
There are no easy answers here. But we are hopeful that in the end, more genuine democracy and more freedom will be good for all of the Middle East — including democratic Israel. As Natan Sharansky, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of his own freedom from the Soviet Gulag, told the Jerusalem Post last weekend, “partnerships with dictatorships are unsustainable — people cannot permanently be repressed, they will push for freedom the moment they sense weakness in their tyrannical leaderships.”
Egypt’s efforts toward democracy should be cultivated and applauded. Free countries do not go to war against each other.