Learning Egypt's Lessons, Getting Whiplash

Opinion

By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 16, 2011, issue of February 25, 2011.
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The democratic revolution in Egypt has captured the world’s imagination and kept us riveted to our television screens for weeks. Only now are we beginning to realize how profoundly our world has been changed. Now that the streets of Cairo have calmed down a bit, it’s time to step back and take a longer view of the events. Let’s run through some of the lessons we have learned from the transcendent historical moment we just witnessed:

1) Despite the cynicism and veiled bigotry of the doubters, Arab peoples do yearn for democracy and are capable of great courage in facing down brutal dictators. After enduring years of repression, of censored media, of rigged elections and rank torture, of dissidents beaten with iron rods and shocked with electrodes on their nipples and genitals, the Egyptian people were able to stand up and take their future into their own hands, perhaps starting a wave that will spread through the Arab world and topple all the other brutal dictators.

2) Hosni Mubarak was a brutal dictator. Who knew? I had seen all the news reports about lashings in Saudi Arabia, torture in Syria, Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Iraq under the U.S. Army. But Egypt? They were supposed to be the good guys. (Full disclosure: I did hear about the rigged elections, but I figured, hey, we have rigged elections in Florida and our republic hasn’t fallen, so it can’t be all that serious.)

3) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not and never was the central factor in Middle East turmoil that it has been made out to be. After all, we have just witnessed the most dramatic event in Middle East politics in decades, a popular revolution overthrowing the government of the most powerful Arab nation, and not a peep was heard about Israel. The ordinary Arab simply doesn’t care about Palestinian rights or Palestinian statehood. The issue is just a myth concocted by Arab rulers to divert their peoples’ attention from their misrule.

4) Peace agreements with Arab states are a foolhardy and dangerous exercise for Israel. The Arab regimes that sign the treaties can be overthrown in a minute,.This could unleash the deep-seated anti-Israel hostility that is endemic on the Arab street.

5) Israel was foolish to try making peace with a dictator. The only truly lasting peace agreements are those between democracies, because democracies don’t go to war against each other.

6) Arab democracy is a threat to Israel. When the winds of democratic change stir in the Arab states, as they have now in Egypt and earlier in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, a tinderbox situation results in which the danger of war rises to Threat Level Red.

7) The collapse of the Mubarak regime proves yet again the enduring value of Israel’s bond with America. Israel has been shown through this crisis to be more than ever an invaluable asset to America and the West as the only stable democracy in the region.

8) The overthrow of Mubarak shows the flimsiness of Israel’s bond with America. Hosni Mubarak was one of America’s most powerful and reliable allies in the region, even if his democracy wasn’t perfect. He even allowed America to send him its criminal suspects for extraordinary rendition, which is something Israel never did, unless you count Meyer Lansky. Nonetheless, when Mubarak found himself in trouble, America just stood by and watched — and then called for stability, and then saluted the protesters, and then sent an envoy who called for Mubarak to stay in power, and then let him fall with a thud. Other allies should expect to see the same behavior from Washington, provided they don’t get whiplash first from all the twists and turns.

9) In hindsight, President George W. Bush was right to put the spreading of democracy at the top of his Middle East agenda. The Egyptian people have shown us that they were willing to risk all to win their freedom, standing their ground defiantly in Tahrir Square for days on end, braving the violence of Mubarak’s thugs, never knowing what the next day would bring. Imagine how much more smoothly it would have gone if President Obama had followed Bush’s example and simply sent in the Marines.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg/


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