The debate between those who embrace the possibility of democracy in Egypt and those who recoil in fear at the idea of an Islamist “Muslim street” overthrowing the Mubarak autocracy has at times been a dialogue of the deaf. It is far from unreasonable to worry about whether the situation today in Cairo is analogous with that of Tehran in 1979. But that is, as Alana notes, a far cry from the sort of incoherent thinking we’ve been hearing from the likes of Glenn Beck.
Yet the Israeli voices expressing indifference, if not outright hostility, to the unrest in Egypt are a different thing altogether. In the Jerusalem Post last Friday, Caroline Glick summed up the arguments for dismissing the uprising as a possible force for good. For her, the apathy of Israelis about Egyptian democracy is based on knowledge of the strength of anti-Semitism, a force that unites an Arab world that is otherwise split along a variety of lines. She went on to conclude:
While we wish them the best of luck with their democracy movements, and would welcome the advent of a tolerant society in Egypt, we recognize that that tolerance will end when it comes to the Jews. And so whether they are democrats or autocrats, we fully expect they will continue to hate us.
Anyone familiar with the depth of Jew-hatred in the Islamic world — a topic that Glick rightly notes is rarely reported on in the Western press — understands the truth of her assertion. So should we simply dismiss the Egyptian unrest as just a case of reshuffling the Jew-hating deck in Cairo?
A more optimistic view comes from Natan Sharansky, who views the situation in Egypt from the perspective of a former dissident fighting tyranny inside a totalitarian state. Sharansky, who was interviewed in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend, doesn’t address the problem of anti-Semitism, but he does point out the problem with discussing Egypt, or any other country, as if there were only two possible choices: dictators like Mubarak and Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sharansky’s point is not that democracy will magically transform Egyptian society into one that will automatically support peace with a Jewish state. Rather, as he asserted in his 2005 book, The Case for Democracy, what is needed in the Arab world are steps that seek to build civil societies whose governments won’t have to depend on exploiting hatred for Israel or Jews (as Mubarak did) in order to keep themselves in power. Merely holding a vote, as happened in 2006 when Hamas won a Palestinian election pitting armed terrorist groups against each other is, more or less, the opposite of democracy. If the West were to maintain a consistent policy of supporting the development of free societies in the Arab world, then there would be a chance for the creation of states that might conceivably make peace with Israel.
The notion that the Palestinians will give up their war on the Jewish state simply because we want them to is unrealistic and the product of the sort of magical thinking that predominates on the left. By contrast, realists about the Arab world are right when they claim that the only way such a peace will happen will be in the event of a complete transformation of Arab political culture, something that doesn’t seem possible in the foreseeable future. But what Sharansky and other Israelis and Americans who advocate support for Egyptian democracy are saying is that the unrest in Cairo is something that could eventually lead to just such a transformation if genuine liberals were given the help they need to defeat Islamists. That doesn’t mean we should ignore Glick’s warnings about the prevalence of Jew-hatred or countenance a “democratic” process that would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Nor should we engage in mindless optimism about Egypt. But we should not dismiss the chance, however much of a long shot it might be, that the creation of genuine democratic institutions offers the possibility of hope for something better.