Why Israel should support the Egyptian people
Since the unrest and protests calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster began almost a week ago, Israel has been obsessed with the possible revolution in-the-making’s effects on itself. While there are very good reasons to worry about how regime change in Egypt would affect the security of Israel, especially its military deployment structure, the Israeli position seems to be predicated on the assumption that Mubarak is invincible and that its own comfortable security arrangements vis-à-vis Egypt trump the democratic rights of the Egyptian people.
Despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wisely ordering his ministers to abstain from publicly commenting on the impossible-to-ignore drama taking place south of the border, it seems that behind the scenes, Israel is actively working to protect the Mubarak regime. A report in Haaretz on Monday alleges that the Foreign Ministry is taking a leading role in trying to convince Western powers to continue backing the Egyptian dictatorship in the name of regional stability. The West, unlike Israel, is preparing itself for the possibility that Mubarak’s days are numbered. Jerusalem would be ill advised to continue viewing that scenario as unlikely.
If and when Mubarak leaves his seat of power in Cairo, Israel (and the IDF in particular) will be faced with a difficult situation. The 30-year peace it has enjoyed with Egypt has given Israel the luxury of more-or-less ignoring its southern border from a military standpoint. If Egypt becomes unstable or is governed by a regime (democratically elected or otherwise) that downgrades its relations with Israel, the IDF will have to redesign its defensive strategy by placing significant forces in the South. The IDF surely has plans for such a scenario, but the real question is whether it has the resources to implement such a plan. Additionally, there is the issue of security coordination between the two countries dealing with Hamas, which has been instrumental in implementing the disastrous blockade on Gaza.
However vital these security concerns are for Israel, decision makers in Jerusalem are completely missing the point. If and when regime change takes place in Egypt, Israel, like the rest of the world, will be forced to deal with it. By backing the demands of the anti-government forces descending on Cairo, the US and Europe are cautiously preparing themselves for this eventuality. Furthermore, those leaders are slowly becoming more honest about their pro-democracy rhetoric that has demanded increased freedoms in the Arab world for decades. European leaders and US President Barack Obama are taking a hesitant stand for their ideals.
The West’s hesitance is also understandable. Implementation of former US President George W. Bush’s neoconservative doctrine, expressed in his famous quote that “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution,” has not turned out so well for Western interests thus far. Most notably, Bush’s insistence on free Palestinian elections led to Hamas coming to power in the Palestinian Authority. Many fear a similar takeover of Egypt by Hamas’ sister-group, the Muslim Brotherhood. It is far more difficult, however, to rationalize discouraging democratic progress when it is organic, as we have seen this month in the streets of Tunis and Cairo.
For economic and militarily strategic reasons, the West has long checked its democratic ideals at the door when dealing with the Middle East. Conveniently, this has left Israel on its moral high ground of being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” However, times are changing. Not only is change inevitable in the Arab world, it appears to be on our doorstep and the world, Israel included, will soon have to deal with whatever appears on the other side. By insisting on providing unchecked support for the Mubarak regime, all the while ignoring the righteous cause of those opposing it, Jerusalem is setting itself up for a level of regional isolation unseen for over 30 years ago. Whatever happens in Egypt, it is unlikely to benefit Israel, but by desperately clinging to the past it is worsening the dangers it is sure to face in the near future.
As a democracy, as a country that doesn’t want war, and most importantly as a state that is facing an increasing level of world isolation due to the seemingly-endless Palestinian conflict, Israel would be well served to follow the world’s lead and take a moral stance on democracy, freedom and human rights by providing even the smallest level of support for the people of Egypt. By distancing themselves ever so slightly from Mubarak’s oppressive and non-democratic regime, the Israeli government may just minimize the fallout that is sure to take place in the post-Mubarak era.
This piece first appeared on The Jerusalem Post.