Two Mideast Democracies, Side by Side

Egypt's Freedom Brings New Opportunities for Israel

Lining Up for Change: Egypt now has a democracy. That’s good for Israel, even if there are bumps in the road.
getty images
Lining Up for Change: Egypt now has a democracy. That’s good for Israel, even if there are bumps in the road.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 09, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Advocates of democracy in the Middle East have been deeply alarmed since December 29, when Egyptian security forces staged lightning raids on the offices of three American nonprofits that work to promote democracy and fair elections overseas. Egyptian officials say they seized the organizations’ books and computers because they suspect them of fomenting the unrest that led to the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship last year and the imposing of Egypt’s first open, democratic election, which the army has pledged to support after it’s done arresting the people who started it.

In defense of the three organizations, sources in Washington point out that they’re not that good. If Washington had wanted to bring democracy to Egypt, it would have done so the old-fashioned way, by sending the 101st Airborne.

Egypt’s Justice Ministry said it needs to determine where the organizations receive their funding, since political meddling by foreign governments is illegal. According to their websites, two of the three organizations, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, receive their funding from Congress. The third, Freedom House, receives only part of its funding from the federal government. The rest comes from private donations and grants from the Irish, Dutch, Norwegian and British governments as well as from the European Union and the United Nations.

The events point to the stark difference between Egypt, which lacks any tradition of democracy, and Israel, the Middle East’s only functioning democracy. In Israel, non-profits suspected of receiving foreign government funding are asked politely to hand over their books, rather than having them seized in police raids.

More important, Israeli officials are working to restrict foreign government funding of nonprofits that operate under the banner of human rights but actually work toward “influencing political debates” or the “policies of the state of Israel,” in the words of the NGO legislation’s original author, Likud lawmaker Ophir Akunis.

By contrast, Egypt is stifling NGOs that are perfectly open about their goals. The National Democratic Institute, the largest of the congressionally funded groups, said in a statement quoted by Fox News on January 2 that it has been operating in Egypt since 2005, “in an open and transparent manner, working to assist the efforts of political parties and civic organizations.”

It should be pointed out, too, that some Israeli NGOs have been receiving money from France. I don’t think I need to explain what that means.

Democracy in the Arab Middle East has been on an uncertain trajectory since the so-called Arab Spring began one year ago. On February 2, the day after Egypt’s Mubarak announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset that a democratic Egypt “would never be a threat to peace. On the contrary, if we have learned anything from modern history, it is that the stronger the foundations of democracy, the stronger the foundations of peace.”

“For over 30 years we have enjoyed peace on two fronts,” namely the borders with Egypt and Jordan, Netanyahu said. One front was a quasi-military dictatorship, the other an absolute monarchy, so it’s unclear how that proved his point, but he seemed pretty sure of himself. In any case, he went on to say that Israelis should approach the Egyptian revolution cautiously, since it could turn sour if Iran managed to control it.

He was sounding a good deal more upbeat in an online town hall in July. “If the Arab spring materializes into real democracy the problem of peace will be resolved,” he cheerily told a questioner.

That didn’t last. In late November, as it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood was poised to win the upcoming elections, Netanyahu addressed the Knesset again and slammed “naïve” Western leaders, especially President Obama, who had pushed Mubarak to resign. They hadn’t listened, he said, when he warned that the Arab Spring would turn “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic.”

“I ask today,” he said, “who here didn’t understand reality? Who here didn’t understand history?”

History is a funny thing. It was Netanyahu more than anyone who put Arab democracy on the international agenda with his acclaimed 1993 book, “A Place Among the Nations.” Perhaps his most influential point was identifying “the main problem of achieving peace in the Middle East”: that “except for Israel, there are no democracies.” (Accent in the original.) The idea is drawn from Immanuel Kant, who wrote that democracies don’t make war against each other in 1795, just before France and England went to war.

Netanyahu has made the point repeatedly over the years, with varying results. His close ally Natan Sharansky elaborated on it in his 2004 “The Case for Democracy,” which George W. Bush called “a great book” and a personal inspiration.

It was Bush, of course, who decided to put the theory into action, first democratizing Iraq at gunpoint in 2003, then forcing Israel to permit elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006. I’m betting Netanyahu advanced the theory as a debating point. He probably never expected that anyone would be crazy to try it. Maybe that’s what he meant about the West not learning from history.

Well, the Netanyahu-Sharansky-Bush democracy bug has spread. Now Israelis have a genuine, multi-party parliamentary democracy next door, and they’re terrified. Fortunately, the army is still in control, and it’s committed to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel despite the Islamist surge. All the leading candidates in next June’s presidential election have said the same. So has the second-largest party in parliament, the ultra-radical Salafi Islamist Al-Nour party.

The other day, though, a deputy leader of the largest party, the Muslim Brotherhood, said the treaty might be put to a referendum and that the Brotherhood would “never” recognize Israel. The consensus in Israel is that he is the true face of the new Egypt. It seems peace was secure while Egypt was a dictatorship, but democracy is fickle — just as Netanyahu warned (after he was done warning the opposite).

In any case, it’s enlightening after all the soothing words from other Egyptian leaders to hear what’s-his-name from the Brotherhood tell us the truth.

Again, compare this with Israeli democracy. In September 2010, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told the United Nations General Assembly there was no chance of Israeli-Palestinian peace in this generation. Netanyahu’s policy, of course, is that peace is possible if only the Palestinians will sit down and talk, but his aides dismissed Lieberman’s speech as “not coordinated” with the prime minister. Apparently he was addressing the U.N. in his personal capacity, not as an Israeli official. That’s the glory of Israeli democracy. Everyone can speak his mind.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.