Commentary Magazine


RE: Egypt Needs Liberalism

There’s not much more to say in a general sense about Michael Totten’s badly needed reality check differentiating liberal democracies — roughly, those that have robust democratic institutions that insulate themselves — from mere democratic spectacles. But it’s worth noting, as a way of beginning to evaluate how the Cairo riots will affect Near East diplomacy, just how much this fundamental point has been neglected in the specific context of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

For Israel, the cold peace with Egypt and the intermittent peace with the Palestinian Authority have always been conducted against the backdrop of a see-no-evil approach to incitement. As long as Cairo and Ramallah cooperated with Jerusalem on security issues, Israeli and Western diplomats looked the other way as those regimes violated their Camp David and Oslo pledges to undertake normalization.

Put more bluntly: as long as Egypt and the Palestinian Authority helped stymie the terrorists of today, Israel and the West were content to let them go on creating the terrorists of tomorrow. Because at least those regimes were stable!

Those terrorists of tomorrow were made possible through geography textbooks that erased Israel, and through television programs that vilified Jews, and through official government propaganda that scapegoated the Jewish state for every imaginable social ill. As of this morning, the Mubarak regime is parading “protesters” in front of state-TV cameras to explain how they were trained by the Mossad to bring down the regime.

The result is that Egyptian and Palestinian civil society is a feverish cesspool of anti-Semitic conspiracism — recall the minor hysteria a few weeks ago over Zionist attack sharks — while Egyptians and Palestinians continue to very publicly indulge in fantasies of eradicating Israel itself.

These are the wages of making peace with governments while allowing normalization between societies to atrophy. Israel let its partners in peace purchase domestic tranquility by demonizing the Jewish state in terms that often crossed the line into outright bigotry, and so now that its partners in peace are collapsing — Cairo, Palileaks, etc. — we’re in a situation where serious people are talking about a return to cyclical nation-state war-fighting.

If a defensible land-for-peace framework returns — and that’s a real question — normalization will have to become more than a pro forma addendum to treaties. Above and beyond normalization being good in itself, an end to incitement will force regimes to undertake badly needed liberal reforms. If they don’t have the Jewish state to demonize for their problems, they might need to address those problems, and something approaching liberal democracy might begin to take shape.

But instead, our best foreign-policy minds are engaged in white-washing the Muslim Brotherhood into an organization with which we can do business. That’s not true and it’s never been true, but let’s pretend it is.

In that case, it would still be a disastrous decision, since it repeats the same stability-oriented mistakes of the old see-no-evil approach. Under autocracies, anti-Israel incitement suffocated liberal institutions indirectly, by channeling dissent into hatred of Israelis and Jews. A Muslim Brotherhood government would suffocate liberal institutions more directly, insofar as the party would make good on its promises to exclude gender and religious minorities from the highest echelons of Egyptian life.

If the instability in Egypt shows us that there’s a difference between democratic niceties and actual liberal democracy — and it does — then the question becomes one of how to create the conditions for liberal democracy. Viewed through that lens, there’s no real difference between engaging Mubarak and engaging the Muslim Brotherhood. Both are out to undermine the institutions and practices that are preconditions for genuine peace in the Middle East.

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