By:  | 

Should Israel Support the Democratic Revolution in Egypt?

The world believed that democracy had prevailed, after the 2011 Egyptian revolution that overthrew authoritarian dictator Hosni Mubarak.  In the words of President Obama, on February 11, 2011, “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments . . .The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard.” Strangely, one country’s views conflicted with the international enthusiasm for Mubarak’s downfall: Israel.  Despite a nearly universal call to respect the Egyptian people’s right to democracy, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered his cabinet to remain silent on the issue.  Israeli President Shimon Peres even stood up for Mubarak, stating, “We always have had and still have great respect for President Mubarak. . .I don’t say everything that he did was right, but he did one thing which all of us are thankful to him for: he kept the peace in the Middle East.” 

Since the turning point in the Egyptian revolution, the seemingly clear-cut demarcation between democracy and oppression has become blurred. An Egyptian parliament was elected, dissolved, and re-elected. An Egyptian constitution was created, but boycotted by many legislators. Mohamed Morsi was elected President and removed from office on the charges of abusing his powers. Protests wracked the nation’s cities following each change with no end in sight.  Most importantly, the Egyptian military played the key role in removing and backing each subsequent government in the endless cavalcade of changing governments.  At this point, international consensus on what to do remains divided.  Yet the question remains:  How could Israel have backed Mubarak, and whom should they support now?

Many analysts have cited natural justifications for Israel’s support of the late Mubarak regime and for those who deposed President Morsi. In their view, Israel considers its own security more important than the democratic rights of the Egyptian people.  In Israel’s cost-benefit analysis, despite the many citizens Mubarak massacred on top of the many civil liberties he repressed, the former President upheld the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty for nearly 30 years.  Similarly, Mubarak worked with Israel to enforce the blockade of Gaza and fight terrorism in the Sinai desert—despite overwhelming Egyptian sympathy with the Palestinian cause.  In spite of his domestic repression of democracy, Mubarak represented a stabilizing force for Israel and much of the world, guaranteeing the flow of international trade through the Suez Canal and partnering with the U.S. in the War on Terror.  To Israel, ultimately, Mubarak was a known entity with friendly policy toward Israel. His downfall, on the other hand, spelled disaster for Israeli-Egyptian relations due to the hostile takeover of the Egyptian government by the Muslim Brotherhood, an anti-Israel, pro-Islam dissident group.  Therefore, argue analysts, Morsi’s deposition by the Egyptian army represents the same realpolitik calculation for Israel: Morsi’s dangerous anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views outweigh his status as democratically elected President of Egypt, and that Israel should not support him.

This narrative leaves a sour taste in my mouth.  While any country, including Israel, should do whatever necessary to protect its own people from foreign threats, the idea of Israel supporting a dictator repressive to his own people or a coup ousting a democratically elected ruler remains antithetical to those of us who view Israel as a beacon of democracy and freedom in the Middle East.  Should we criticize Israel for this cold, uncompassionate, and downright selfish-seeming foreign policy?  Before rushing to judgment, I believe two main factors must be weighed: the true state of democracy in Egypt, and the measure of threat Israel faces. 

The true state of Egypt’s democracy can be summed up in one word: disarray.  The democratic uprising portrayed by the media in 2011 was supposed to have reached its pinnacle with the election of Mohammed Morsi.  His “Freedom and Justice” Party purportedly won the election, 51.73% to 48.27%, over Ahmed Shafiq, on a platform of democratic change from the Mubarak era.  Yet, after the election, Morsi issued declarations granting himself a broad array of virtually unlimited powers, and, under the guise of “sweeping out the old regime,” replaced key government officials with individuals loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, he supported the new constitution despite its Islamic favoritism and questionable legality.  Under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, violence against women and religious minorities like Egypt’s Christian Copts skyrocketed, with female reporters and protesters raped, Christian-owned buildings burned, and Christian clergy paraded through the streets like POWs.  Hundreds of thousands protested against Morsi and the Brotherhood’s abuse of power, and in response, the army intervened and removed Morsi from office.

The army claims its coup was justified, as it returned democracy to the Egyptian people.  And this statement may even be true. Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli Minister, has brought allegations that Morsi actually lost the presidential election.  According to his source, “The army rigged the presidential elections in June 2012, fearing widespread riots should the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, lose the race.”  If Morsi really lost the election, the army would certainly be correct to claim they acted in the people’s interest by removing him from power.  But it begs the question:  If the army fixed the election in the first place, how valid a democratic process was the election to begin with?  With a voter turnout of only between 15%-40% of the population, and reports of disenfranchisement and intimidation by the Brotherhood, my guess would be about as valid as Iran serving on the UN disarmament committee.

More importantly, the army acted out of fear of the Muslim Brotherhood seizing power and promoting its radical agenda.  This points to the crux of the problem:  how can democracy truly exist in Egypt when a sizeable chunk of the population supports an extremist group promoting violence and repression against those that don’t share its views?  Those who have been naively endorsing Egyptian democracy since day one might just optimistically hope for the best, but Morsi’s year in office has demonstrated the danger of allowing violent extremists to gain power.  As disheartening as it sounds, perhaps democracy should not rule in Egypt until a true separation of mosque and state can be established.  The religious hardliners should not be allowed to use democracy as another means of extending Islamic control over the population.  And Israel should not welcome a repressive regime that made overtures to Iran and Hamas with open arms–both for Israel’s sake and for the Egyptian people’s.

If democracy, thus far, has failed in Egypt, whom can Israel turn to for a meaningful relationship?  At the end of the day, as frustrating as it may sound, the Egyptian army has been Israel’s best ally in the country since the peace accords were signed.  When Israel’s embassy in Egypt was attacked in 2011, it was Egyptian commandos that rescued the staffers; when terrorists in the Sinai launched attacks on Israel, it was the Egyptian army that helped suppress them.  What has allowed normalized relations with Egypt has not been democracy, economic ties, or love between peoples.  Rather, Israel’s peace has rested on the stability of its neighbor—a stability that only the Egyptian army could provide. With the Arab Spring entering its Fall, and the messes in Syria and Lebanon just a border away, Israel can hardly afford to look at Egyptian democracy in flux and pretend to be hopeful, like other world leaders have done.  Instead, it must continue to rely on the Egyptian army, just as Egypt’s citizens do, to manage a transition into a democratic Egyptian government, ruled for and by the people.

While the latest round of pro-Morsi protesters and army backlash makes that future seem ever more distant, the current situation has, at long last, opened the eyes of the world and vindicated Israel’s position.  Many countries are evacuating their embassies, and the U.S. is cutting its usual military aid to Egypt.  All finally seem to understand that the Egyptian revolution was only a symptom of Mubarak’s repression, not its cure. In other words, the world is learning that while democracy may be idealized, in the hands of certain groups, it can be used to abuse power even more than an autocratic despot or army.  It is my belief that the day that Egyptian democracy provides the stability that Egypt’s army has in the past, Israel will be one of the first to extend an open hand to its leaders and welcome them into the elite club of republics in the Middle East.  Until then, the world will set its clocks back for the Egyptian Fall and weather its winter to see what next Spring brings.