Friday, February 4, 2011

Egypt - the Birthplace of Freedom

The situation in Egypt has become so tenuous and complicated that it is hard to distinguish the forest for the trees, especially regarding the impact on Israel. I've asked some people-in-the-know for some good resources for intelligent and informed analysis, and in particular a sense of the Egyptian mindset. The suggestions are at the bottom, but first my own less-then expert take:

I saw a cute joke yesterday, a statement from Israelis that the rioters should be careful not to damage the pyramids, since our original craftsmanship did not come with a lifetime warranty. When you get beyond the humor, though, there is some truth. The Jewish people were born of a dramatic liberation that took place in the very same place where people are dying right now for the right to self determination.

So I trend toward accepting the Passover narrative for what's going on, rather than the Purim narrative, where the Muslim Brotherhood are Haman, manipulating events and standing in the wings, plotting to annihilate the Jews.

Here are some of the most recent articles expressing Israel's justifiable angst.

On Israel and Egypt

Why Israel fears a free Egypt (Washington Post)
Betting on Egypt democracy is Israel's only choice (Ha'aretz)
Why Israel Hates the Egyptian Uprising‎ - Slate Magazine
Editor's Notes: The reversal of a generation's momentum‎ - Jerusalem Post
Unrest in Egypt could lead to Israel's worst nightmare JTA
and I especially liked this NYTimes Conversation Conversation between David Brooks and Gail Collins

It is dangerous to look for analogies in recent as well as ancient history. In many ways this feels like Berlin in 1989, in other ways like Iran in '79, but neither situation takes into account the massive globalization that has taken place and in particular the impact of technology. Egyptians might be struggling for food and dignity, but they all seem to have cell phones. The Muslim Brotherhood remains virulently anti Israel and anti-Semitic, but by all accounts they are far from a majority and are not steering events right now. The peace treaty, cold as it has been, has held since 1979, but it is universally held that peace treaties between real democracies are much more stable than those with dictators.

The week before I was about to spend my rabbinical school year in Israel in 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated. Here was the man who single handedly forged peace with Israel, and this was a time, only two years later, when not only was the ink on that treaty barely dry, but the emotional scars of the 1973 war were still fresh on both sides. If ever there was a time to panic about a transition, that was it. Who knew what would happen?

Mubarak is no Sadat, and he could have gone either way. The promise of American dollars and regional stability lured him toward the West. This current Facebook/Twitter-stoked revolution was not born in Mecca or Medina, but in Mark Zuckerberg's dorm room at Harvard. The arc of history may be taking some unusual detours, but the trends of the past decade, including the crushed revolt in Iran and gradual liberalization in China, point toward the Egyptian adventure leading, lurching, toward a positive outcome.

I am by nature an optimist - sometimes painfully so. I also agree with those that a mad rush to elections would be a mistake, as we saw in the West Bank and Gaza. But democratic institutions can be nurtured and proceed with due speed, and negotiations can as well. Israel needs to be in constant conversation with all elements of the Egyptian body politic, in particular the business sector. And negotiations with the Palestinians need to continue too.

We talk of wanting to be on the right side of history. Democratic governments need first and foremost to feed their people in order to stay in power. Trying to distract them by creating scapegoats does much less good, whether they be the press, the Americans, the Israelis or others.

The "Arab Street" is fast turning into the "Arab Electorate," and the flag burning is being replaced by a the vigorous exchange of ideas by an empowered electorate. It won't happen over night. But once it does, Israel will potentially be more secure than ever. It's neighbors will be speaking the same language - the language of representative, responsible government.

That's the side of history I would want to be on, were I Bibi Netanyahu. The people of Israel gained its freedom on the banks of the Nile. It's so fitting that its neighbors might now do the same.

Online resources:

The International Crisis Group (ICG) - This resource will be most helpful over the coming weeks as the situation begins to clarify. Always a reliable contribution to further analysis of the dynamics of politics and conflict; at this point their positions on Egypt are short, but this is a good site to monitor.

Human Rights Watch - good accounts of the abuses with perhaps a more comprehensive and deeper presentation than that of Amnesty International’s reports;

UNDP (UN Development Programme) Arab States - publishes the annual Human Development Reports specifically about the countries of the Arab (and the better-known annual global HDRs).

Peace and Collaborative Development Network -, article at bottom of page by Firouzeh Afsharnia, “From Tunis to Egypt and Iran: Democracy in Subtitles”;

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace –, a publication, “US Aid to Egypt: The Current Situation and Future Prospects”, June 2009.


1. The Jacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany, a journalist and writer in the Thoreauian spirit who makes a living as a dentist.

In addition to providing valuable commentary about Egyptian life, human behaviour in an authoritarian environment, this book also offers important insights into the social cleavage (and of course economic) between the rural and the urban - which one could posit - serves as one of the many causes of resentment, frustration, and humiliation manifested in the interactions between these two social strata (as demonstrated perhaps with the manipulative use of whip and machete-wielding horse and camel-riders).

2. The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World by Dominique Moisi, the French journalist, analyst who helped to found the French Institute of International Affairs.

While at times superficial and questionable in terms of ‘voice’, Dominique’s book is nevertheless an important contribution to understanding motivations (beyond the realpolitik) of societies, nation-states, et al.

3. Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future by Stephen Kinzer, author of the excellent book, All the Shah’s Men.

While not Egypt-specific, the book is certainly very relevant to understanding the dynamics concerning two other societies ‘in transition’ and their similarities and differences with Egypt.

4. Islamic Liberation Theology by Hamid Dabashi, a Columbia University professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature, writes a thought-provoking alternative treatise to Huntington’s so-called clash of civilisations with detail and fresh paradigms about Islam, the West, ideology, and more.

5. The Last Pharaoh by Aladdin Elaasar, Egyptian-born/raised lecturer and author/journalist, lives in US.

Elaasar’s work is a trenchant, multi-disciplinary presentation of Egypt’s history and present state that holds no punches.

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