For Israel and its supporters, the situation playing out in Egypt is cause for concern, despite the yearnings of those in the streets of Cairo for a more democratic form of government. The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining a foothold in a new Egyptian government is, understandably, rattling nerves in Israel. For a perspective on the issues, The Jewish Week spoke to Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy a the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
Q: Is Arab democracy a threat to Israel?
A: The short answer, which may take the longest time to reach, is “no.” The longer answer is “maybe,” and the immediate answer is “yes.” To begin at the end, current lexicon confuses democracy with voting and majority rule. Even with the common stipulation of a secret ballot, legalized thuggery is not democracy and does indeed threaten Israel.
Is the Hamas model applicable to what’s going on in Egypt?
President Bush said before the 2005 Palestinian election that brought Hamas to power, “Elections are vital — but they are only the beginning.” He was wrong. Elections are not the beginning of the democratic process; they are its crowning glory. Only after you have rule of law, the protection of minorities, a free press and multiple centers of power (think unions, mayors, independent jurists, bloggers and the Chamber of Commerce) are conditions ripe for real electoral choice.
Egyptians, along with Iranians, Syrians and Palestinians have marched to the voting booth at various intervals, but the outcomes prove that elections do not produce democracy (although they can ratify it), but rather tolerance and liberty produce free and fair elections. The order is essential.
Israel is endangered by the unwillingness of democratic countries — despite the billions in Western aid — to insist that the Palestinians and other Arabs meet the basic standards of a tolerant society with the promise of regular elections. But that is not the threat of democracy; it is the threat of elected totalitarianism.
What’s the key to what you call “consensual government?”
While no political process or document is perfect (the U.S. Constitution is pretty damned good and even that has been amended 27 times), perfection isn’t necessary. The key to consensual government is that no election is the last one. No political point is irrevocable — although equality of citizens before the law comes close. You can lose now, win later and be the loyal opposition in the meantime. There are people of a different race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender and/or political ideology who may share your view on an individual issue, if not on all issues. And it is the essence of consensual government to marshal your political forces, look for allies, not burn bridges and create majorities that change over time and over issues.
These are truths of democratic political life and have to be true in the Arab world before the word applies. When it applies, it will not threaten Israel.
Does everyone get a chance to have a seat at the table?
Another truth is that not every ideology is acceptable and not everyone gets to run. Racist parties were banned in Europe after World War II, and in the U.S., the KKK and the Nazi Party aren’t on the ballot. As a corollary, nothing obliges our government to accept other people’s intolerant, homophobic, anti-Semitic or misogynistic gangs as legitimate leaders. And if they really reflect the “will of the people,” the people haven’t developed the tolerance that is the sine qua non of free societies and they aren’t democratic. And, yes, if the people elect them, the process of election does threaten Israel.
Wouldn’t the Muslim Brotherhood almost certainly be a part of any new Egyptian government?
Those in the West who argue for acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Ba’athists or the Mullahs because they are the future, argue a bleak future for the people of the Arab world and a perpetuation of the threat to Israel. Those who argue for continuance of a repressive status quo — whether [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen or [Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad] — as being better than the chaos that may follow them, argue the same.
Insistence on the precursors of democratic systems over time is the only way to reach democracy in the Arab world and reduce the threat to Israel.