How would a secular, liberal political party seek to gain the affection of ordinary Egyptians in an election in which it would be forced to compete against Islamists? The obvious answer is that it would have to in some way pander to the animus against Israel and Jews that has become such an important part of Egyptian culture in the past 30 years. It is in this context that we must interpret the news that Ayman Nour, head of the avowedly liberal and secular Egyptian opposition party, has said that the 1978 Camp David Accords that paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt are irrelevant and must be redrawn.
Nour’s position seemingly echoes the stand of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which earlier this month restated its desire to abrogate the peace with Israel. But seen in the context of Egyptian politics, we have to suppose that Nour’s call for new negotiations over the terms agreed to in 1978 by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (and then formalized in the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries), rather than an abrupt cutoff, must be considered a more moderate stance than that of the Brotherhood, an organization linked by ideology and longstanding ties to Hamas.
Nour is, after all, a genuine democrat and a man who has suffered for his principles. Mubarak imprisoned him for four years after he had the chutzpah to challenge him in the 2005 presidential elections. Nour got a reported 7 percent of the votes cast in a sham ballot whose purpose was to rubber-stamp Mubarak’s continued hold on power; many observers estimate that Nour probably got twice as many votes as were credited to him. Nour was also a prominent member of the recent Cairo protests against Mubarak and was wounded when he was hit in the head by a rock.
The problem here is that while Mubarak’s government kept the peace with Israel, albeit coldly, it compensated for this by allowing anti-Semitism and incitement against Israel to become deeply entrenched within Egyptian popular culture. Under the circumstances, there is simply no way that a secular party committed to democracy can stand up against the Islamists without paying lip service to the Jew-hatred that is the lingua franca of so much of that country’s political discourse.
Acknowledging this fact does not mean that we should scorn the idea of democracy for Egypt, since the creation of a democratic legal order in which tyrants or demagogues will not need recourse to exploiting anti-Semitism is the only hope for a peaceful future for the region. But Nour’s statement illustrates the challenges that any sort of democratic process faces in Egypt. It is understandable that after having always being denied a voice in their country’s government, Egyptians would demand elections for a new one. But the predicate for genuine democracy remains the creation of institutions that will protect individual rights and the rule of law in Egypt, not a vote in which either the army or violent Islamists will use their muscle to wipe out opposition in much the same way that Mubarak has done.