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Why Israelis aren't thrilled by the prospect of a democratic Egypt

Israeli leaders used to say that democracy in the Arab world is the key to peace and prosperity in the region. So why are they so unhappy with the current demonstrations?

By Eyal Clyne

Four months ago, deputy-Foreign Minister Ayalon ,who often serves as media front for Foreign Minister Lieberman, addressed the high-level audience of ministers, speakers of parliaments and politicians from across the globe about the lack of democracy in the Middle East”, according to the Israeli embassy to the US. Ayalon apparently said (highlights are mine):

“If the Middle East was more democratic, then there would be no conflict, as history has proven that, in general, democracies don’t fight each other or send terrorist proxies. Our conflict is not over territory or resources but over basic ideology, Israel is not accepted in the region because it is democratic. […] I am embarrassed to be the only speaker from a democracy in our region.” .

Given Israel’s complaints over the lack of democracy in the Middle East, one would expect it to be encouraged by the winds of change blowing from Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and possibly Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Sudan. But this is not the case. Although Netanyahu specifically ordered his ministers not to comment on the Egyptian issue, at least one of his cabinet members did. “We believe that Egypt is going to overcome the current wave of demonstrations”, s/he told TIME Magazine. The minister added: “I’m not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process”, suggesting that instead of an open and free elections, what the Egyptians really need is “a process” that should “take generations”; and concluded with wishful thinking: “We do believe the regime is strong enough to overcome it”.

This statement is in line with the general atmosphere in the Hebrew media this morning. Israel’s main stories express concerns voiced by senior military brass, fearing of any change in the status quo. “We must ask ourselves what is the worst-case scenario” said Ya’acov Amidror, former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Research and Assessment Directorate. And these concerns from a democratic Egypt are not limited to circles of army generals. “I was interested today to see reaction from pro-Israel groups in the United States — which were favorably disposed to the democratic aspirations of the Green movement in Iran in 2009 — to the Egyptian pro-democracy protests” – noted Salon.com’s Justin Elliott. He quotes Alan Elsner, senior director of communications at the Israel Project, an influential D.C.-based pro-Israel group, saying: “There is a huge difference between the governments of Iran and of Egypt. The government of Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and has observed it, [and Iran is antagonistic to it]”.

This is, in a nut shell, the reason for Israeli support vis-a-vis concern of a possible democratic revolution in other countries, such as Iran or Egypt. What comes first is the government’s own interest, not any kind of support for universal democracy and human rights. And as far as the Israeli mainstream is concerned, (a) a “friendly” suppressive dictator, ruling 80 million people for decades, is not necessarily worse than a neighboring democracy; and so (b) the support for the green-movement in Iran wasn’t due to its democratic values, as many claimed at the time to western media over and over again, but rather because they wished for a different regime in Iran with a different foreign policy.

Two things should be said about this revealing moment.

First, there is no guarantee, neither in Iran nor in Egypt, for the convenient policy Israel wishes for. For example, what would have happened if the green-movement would have culminated in a democratic revolution last year, but a democratically elected Iranian government would have continued to support a confrontational policy with regard to Israel, as indeed happened in Turkey, Lebanon, and with the Palestinians’ election of Hamas?

Second, while it is understandable that they hope for policies more convenient to their interests, it is less acceptable that they cynically abuse democratic rhetoric for this purpose. Now we know what some have suspected: When Israeli officials and supporters emphasize Israel’s democratic aspects, it is not because they truly unconditionally stand behind their universality, but rather to tactically raise sympathy among western publics, for their own needs. In particular, they are abusing the empathy for democratic values to promote and defend their military rule in the West Bank, and the ethnic and emergency laws and practices in Israel-proper. As we can see at least in the case of Egypt, they rather compromise their support of (other people’s) freedom and democracy, for their own interests, and this episode may cost them (whatever is left of) their integrity and reliability in the West.

Moreover, if we believe Netanyahu’s statements and follow his logic, more democracy should actually bring peace and security to the region. Only last year he asserted to British and American media that “democracies don’t fight each other”, (relying on liberal political scholars, who see this as self-evident truism). So, if this is indeed his belief, and it’s not the fear of war and security issues, then why are Israelis so worried of a democratic Egypt? A possible if unintentional outcome may be that Israel will lose its legitimizing argument, and its self-proclaimed monopoly of being the democratic beacon of the region; what’s more, Israelis they face fresh regional competition they may seem less democratic. If indeed things will turn this way, it would be a very interesting change in Middle East politics to see, that – as Arab countries become more democratic, Israel is and will be getting less so.

Eyal Clyne is an independent Israeli blogger-researcher (among other things, and not as a source for income). His Hebrew blog is named after Ahad Ha’am’s inspiring essay “Truth from Eretz Israel”, and focuses on the conflict and other Israeli-political issues.

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    1. Sachi

      Title is completely misleading.

      Israelis are thrilled and happy for the establishment of any democracy, especially in Egypt and/or any other Arab country.

      There are, however, some major fears for the possibilty of a new, radical, militant, muslim dictatorship taking power in Egypt. As history in the region shows, NO Arab or Muslim country shifted to democracy, EVER. On the other hand, the opposite turned out to be sadly true: Iran, Hammas, Algeria.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ilana Sebba

      I think no one is disputing that, regardless of israeli politicla interests, the Egyptian people, as everyone else in the world, deserve a democratic government with full human rights. The question is how will this be achieved, who will help Egypt, Algeria, etc. with infrastructure, teaching a true democratic process, etc? I agree with Sachi, what should really worry everyone is what will happen when Mubarak is gone. I wish the egyptian people the best.

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    3. Israeli shadow cabinet

      An alternative announcement Israel could have made:

      “We of course remember that before being Israelis, we are human beings. And we look at the events in Egypt, and feel the true frustration and excitement among those flooding the streets in a just demand for freedom. We hope that the future of Egyptians will be of more individual freedoms, regardless of how the events will turn out. Whatever way things will take, we are looking at Egypt as our ally, and we wish them the happiest and most successful prospects.”

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    4. Linda

      Too soon to analyze what will be the results of the riots. It is a good sign that there are demonstrations the demos rose up- does not necessarily mean democracy.
      Any way leaders and intelligence officers never cope well with change- or things they did not “predict”

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    5. ImadK


      You may be right about Arab countries not shifting to democracies, though lebanon and iraq may be contested, looking at Indonesia or Bangladesh, you certainly cannot say that for Muslim (non-Arab) countries. And second of all, considering that these nations are relatively quite young, stating that these countries don’t shift to democracies EVER implies that they’ll NEVER become democracies. Are you not open to that possibility that Egypt will become a functioning democracy in the future?

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    6. Sefi


      The writer seems to have a very clear agenda, and this agenda has managed to have him twist things.

      To begin with, as a human being and an Israeli, I truly and honestly wish the Egyptian people nothing but peace and freedom. They deserve it, and should have more control of their life. Israel is not a perfect country, far from it. However, show me a country that is.

      Israel, just as every other country in the world is entitled to have interests. The call not to have an official stance is based on the fact that any position we do yield would by definition go against our interests and is likely to hurt Israel. The same way we did not officially support the uprising in Iran last year. In addition, why the hell are we criticized for not intervening in foreign country’s internal issues?

      As for the accusations themselves – the writer seems to have missed a few very critical issues in his crusade against Israel. First, the debate is not between supporting democracy or tyranny but rather between keeping the current regime (with all of its flaws) and changing it to either one of the 3 following options: A. a different member of the current military elite. B. a liberal democratic candidate. C. a cleric dictatorship in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.

      These are not my opinions, these are the current choices. The problem with the article is that is presented things in a very narrow perspective, not mentioning the third and fairly likely option. This option, given the relative organization of the MB (as opposed to the liberal camp) is a tremendous risk to the region, and foremost to Israel. This would also explain Israel’s fears. The MS calls for the cancellation of the peace treaty with Israel, and supports the hard-line, anti-Israel movement in the region, spearheaded by Hamas. Unlike Hamas, Egypt has a very strong military, financed and armed by the US. From the Egyptian perspective, it would also mean the end of this support alongside with the US funded financial support (second only to the support of Israel by the US), which would defiantly not help Egypt’s poor and suppressed.

      The other reason for this fear is that history teaches us different than to daydream of change. A few days ago (before the blackout) I asked an Egyptian friend supportive of the demonstration– what is the plan, and the answer was – to protest. No specific leader, no specific line. Looking at regional history, we see that without a plan you end up with either a mess (like in the last war in Iraq) or an unwanted outcome, like what happened in Iran in 1979. The uprising then, just like now, was justified. The people in both countries demanded more freedom and reforms. The US, like then, was very eager to pressure its ally to conform. Unfortunately, that led to the rise of a by far more suppressive and radical force. Israel is justifiably fearful from that prospect, and every liberal, pro democratic person also should. Not for Israel’s sake, but for the Egyptian people’s sakes. The writer is so focused on Israel-bashing that he neglected to refer to actual facts, and these are the things, my dear friend, that determine the outcome.


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    7. Eyal

      Seems like the Israeli comments did not really understand the text, or didn’t read it carefully.

      a. I did not write about the future, but about the present, and not about what will happen with the movement, but about the current chilling reactions – especially among officials – to a prospect of a democratic Egypt, which, don’t make Israelis as happy, as the prospects they had for a democratic Iran.

      b. The text is about the two face towards popular movements: on the one hand supporting the popular struggle in Iran, and saying it’s a moment of human hope, but on the other, fearing it when it comes to Egypt. It’s about the hipocracay of saying you prefer democracy and speak on its behalf – but only to gain western sympathy, because you only prefer it, unless the tyrant is “friendly”, and the people are not.

      Bottom line is: If we speak for our own interests, at least lets not mask it with the universal right for democracy, (or at least, let us begin by dismentelling our own 44 years old military rule in the west bank). We must not stain universal human rights with political interests, (also because we’re only loosing credibility).

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    8. Sefi

      You can’t write about the present in a general sense without referring of implying to future aspects. To demand of Israelis to detach their reactions from the plausible outcome of the move and its impact on them is to ask them to be above human. Plus, your demand is not for Israelis as people, but to the government (since you referred to the government’s stance). In any way – Israel is damned in any scenario. If it shows support to the protesters, as in any intervention in arab politics, it would be regarded as a “Zionist plot”, thus hurting the protesters, plus harming its relations with the current administration in case it survives. If it doesn’t say anything, it is damned for being silent and inhumane – like you bothered to mention. As for supporting the government openly – it would justifiably bring criticism for supporting anti-democratic moves.
      This brings me to the conclusion that you would rather Israel’s best action would be to not intervene.

      Your reference towards what happened in Iran has nothing to do with Israel’s official stance. Actually during the events in Iran, Israel refrained from supporting the revolution, not because it thought it wasn’t right, but in order to not hurt it. Plus no one still knows what Mussavi thinks of Israel. You need to differentiate the media and the government stance.

      Your demand from Israelis to be as happy for the fall of an authoritarian enemy as they would be in the case of the demise of an authoritarian ally is an unreasonable request. No country in the world upholds such politics action or values, and Israel is no different. Plus, as mentioned – history has proven it to be counterproductive in many cases.

      There is a lot of justified criticism of Israel, its leaders and its actions in the west bank and elsewhere, but this is just not the case. If any, over-criticizing just makes people here indifferent to the criticism – and this is a reaction we don’t want to expand more than it already is.

      Take Care,

      Reply to Comment
    9. AngeloR

      We all know the “democracy” is a moral justification for hegemony (just as “communism” became that for the Soviet Union). The facade was completely obliterated by how we treated Hamas after it won elections in Gaza (and before that it was Arafat that was hindering the peace process – by his very existence). We know too that the U.S. and Israel will always come up with something that buys time for the slow usurping of practically all of what used to be Palestine. From their perspective, the MO of usurpation leading to resistance and resistance begeting more usurpation has worked – how handy: roll over and die as we roll over you, or stand up to us and we’ll roll over you anyway. What a choice the Palestinian people have!

      But the utility of democracy as a U.S. and Israeli tool for furthering Israeli ends is coming to an end while the flip side of Middle Eastern democracy is now coming into sharp relief. Democracy is now an issue – not because it’s so useful to the U.S. and Israel as a hammer to beat and isolate those who we don’t like or who stand up for their Palestinian brethren, but because democracy will enable Arabs and Muslins to better manage the containment of Israel. The organizational efficiency, legitimacy, independance, and structural and national unity that comes from a democratic political society is a serious challenge to both U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the region. Today, Turkey and Tunisia, soon in Egypt, and perhaps still later in Jordan – combined with a new governing Shiite-Christian coalition in Lebanon, the forces of inevitability – underpinned by the moral and historical gravity of a self-imposed predicament, are all in place for the next stage of our endless ME crisis.

      All of that leads me to Obama. For one second consider what it means to be the first black president of these United States. Consider the history, the holocaust of 400 years of oppression – and think about the weight on his shoulders. He’s got to all of savor the moment, manage a country in relative decline out of a deep deep recession – contend with the legacy of the county’s historical mistreatment of people of color – and still carve out the possibility of future Presidents of Color by running the country effectively both domestically and internationally.

      What is most important for us to keep in mind is that in Obama’s heart he’s cheerleading for Palestine – he can never ever ever state that publically, but his history is steeped in everything that compels that conclusion – it’s in his life-history, it was in the calling of his pastor of 20 years (Jeremiah Wright), it’s in his DNA – and he is “a brother” in the greatest sense of the term.

      To be sure, it’s a new dawn in the ME.

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    10. AngeloR

      Sefi – you are right to underline the very real possiblity of the emergance of a radical anti-Israel regime in Egypt and the difficulty this presents for Israeli leaders and for Israeli policy. Indeed, whatever form ultimately takes shape – it will be a miracle if it’s not significantly influenced by anti-US and anti-Irsaeli sentiment.

      Where I disagree is with the charactization that “every liberal” and “pro-democratic” person should fear this outcome. In fact, justice for Palestinians over and against U.S. and Israeli colonization, occupation, aggression, subjugation, and oppression is what we want most. We’re realistic enough to know it’s not going to be pretty, but “democracy” per se is secondary in moral and histoircal importance to us than is the need to contain Israel to it’s 1967 borders. Period. And for this to happen, the staus quo must first be destroyed, which is exactly what is happening. Where democracy can be an instrument of containment, then yes; where democracy is just a way to further Israel’s colonial interests, then no.

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    11. Majid Jamali Fashi

      As an Iranian and staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad, I certainly hope that Egypt emulates Iran and becomes democratic. Currently, Iran is the only democracy in the Middle East, and its population overwhelmingly supports the replacement of the zionists by a free, independent and democratic Palestine. Lets hope Egypt follows our example

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    12. AngeloR

      Interesting Majid – with all the propaganda, the combination of all the forces the U.S. and Israel can muster against Iran – and some of it self-inflicted by a guy with a really big mouth (Ahmadinejad), we are reminded by an Ahmadinejad supporter that Iran is indeed a democracy. Not a perfect one of course, but then blacks and women were denied voting rights for centuries in America – and as late as 2000 George W. Bush was able to steal an American election in broad daylight. So yes, democracy can actually intensify anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. sentiment. The “will of the people” is apparently much less fickle than the machinations of depots. And reason tells us here – that Israel is just nuts to think it could set up camp in the middle of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims holding an envelope from God laying claim to Palestine. Even with the support of overwhelming U.S. power, it just will never stand.

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    13. Eyal

      Haaretz reports today:

      Israel urges world to curb criticism of Egypt’s Mubarak


      According to Haaretz: “Jerusalem seeks to convince its allies that it is in the West’s interest to maintain the stability of the Egyptian [dictatorial] regime”.

      Thus, while “Israeli officials are keeping a low profile on the events in Egypt” when it comes to media relations, it is behind the scenes that “the Foreign Ministry issued a secret directive to around a dozen key embassies [ordering them] to stress to their host countries the importance of Egypt’s “stability” […] as soon as possible”.

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    14. […] under our rule with no political rights, we’d rather repeatedly elaborate the advantages of the democratic rights we “allow” our Arab citizens. We fail to mention that even for this minority, Israel is […]

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