Friday morning, in an east Jerusalem hotel, at a strategic thinking session of Israelis and Palestinians, my attention is divided between a fascinating discussion of local developments and the 20+ “tweets” I am receiving every minute from Egyptians and Egyptian news services about the emerging reality of a new Middle East. I am captured by a strong sense that history is being made as the Egyptian masses leave the mosques after noontime prayers to overturn the regime of Hosni Mubarak and change the face of Egypt and the region.
My heart is with the Egyptian people facing an autocratic regime, whose leaders have denied them basic freedoms and pillaged the wealth of Egypt, transferring much of it to bank accounts abroad and living in palaces overlooking the Nile while millions of citizens live on less than $2 a day.
At the same time, like all Israelis, I feel fear and concern – what will be the future of the peace between our countries? Even though the peace has been cold, it has been stable and has removed existential threats.
I have been in Egypt dozens of times. I have walked the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, where the main demonstrations are taking place. I have never felt threatened or afraid to travel in that country. I have many Egyptian friends from academia, government and the security forces. These people have always demonstrated loyalty to and admiration for the Mubarak regime. In past visits to Cairo, I did witness a few demonstrations against Israel, but they were small – less than 100 people.
But it is quite clear that peace between the Egyptian and Israeli people never emerged. The masses in Egypt hate Israel, and identify strongly with its enemies. But this too is a relatively new phenomenon, deeply influenced by Al-Jazeera and other Arab media, with their pro-Islamic, pro- Hamas positions.
In the minds of the common Egyptian, Israel is a great enemy which continues to deny their Palestinian brothers and sisters their dignity and freedom, threatens the Aksa Mosque, passes racist legislation and, together with the United States, controls the wealth of the world.
Inspired by the people of Tunisia, the Egyptian masses took to the streets. The Mubarak regime has greatly improved the macroeconomic situation, but while the GDP grows steadily, the poor masses become even poorer, while the rich gain more wealth.
The great challenge to any regime in Egypt is simply to feed its people. Every year, 1.2 million are born, and this is by far Egypt’s biggest problem. In the West (Israel included) feeding family members requires about 15 percent of a family’s income. In Egypt it is above 50%, wages are much lower, and the food markets are much sparser than anything we know.
The people are hungry, angry and fed up with corruption and nepotism, and they’ve said “enough.”
THE MUBARAK regime is finished. Maybe it won’t fall today or in the weeks to come, but the Egypt of today is already no longer the Egypt of yesterday. The appointment of Omar Suleiman as vice president, and even a new prime minister and a new government will not meet the demands of the people. The masses have not been led by a single figure or movement; the Mubarak regime “successfully” decimated all legitimate democratic opposition over the years. The only real organized opposition working on the sidelines of the law is the Muslim Brotherhood.
But in the mid 2000s the Kifayeh (enough) movement emerged – a coalition of democracy advocates, unionists, students and others demanding democratic reform. Kifayeh captured the attention of the world because it was a non- Islamic democratic reform movement willing to take on the regime and demand a place at the table.
But the Mubarak regime acted swiftly, and managed to crush Kifayeh’s popular support. Likewise, the Ghad (tomorrow) movement led by democratic reformer Ayman Nour. This liberal democracy party was attacked by the Mubarak regime, which arrested Nour on false changes and managed through the falsification of election results to render the party powerless.
There are additional civil society groups which have worked in the shadows of Egyptian society and which will now struggle to take the main stage, such as the April 6 coalition from 2009.
There is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who has taken center stage in his calls for Mubarak to step down, and has volunteered to head an interim government.
CAN A non-Islamic fundamentalist Egypt emerge from the current revolution? Will the new Egypt honor the peace treaty with Israel? Will the revolution spread to other Middle East countries? What impact will the Egyptian developments have on the Palestinian arena? These are the main questions. No one knows the answers. But the “insights” provided by mainstream Israeli analysts and experts are all bleak and full of fear.
The Israeli mind-set can only see the passing of the Mubarak regime as a tragedy and a victory for the dark forces of radical Islam. They tell us that the Arab masses can’t understand democracy. They inform us that Arab countries must have strong leaders because Arabs understand only power and force. They tell us US President Barack Obama is weak because instead of standing behind “his” dictator, he voices support for the masses’ calls for reform and democracy, and by doing so is undermining the stability of the region.
Perhaps there is another valid perspective – one that doesn’t view the Middle East only in terms of a clash of civilizations but rather in human terms. One that realizes hungry people, denied their basic human rights, will always, under the right circumstances, rise up against corrupt leaders.
There is a legitimate view which understands that those dictators, and people who support them, will always be the enemy of the people living under their harsh regimes.
Yes, Israel is a democracy, but we too have 1.2 million Palestinian citizens living with discrimination, and we control another almost 2.5 million living under our military occupation, who are also denied basic freedoms. These people pose a great risk to our stability and existence.
The lessons we learn from Tunisia and Egypt should not be the need to apply more military might to crush the weak, but the need to understand that the human security they are craving will not be buried or defeated by “loyalty laws,” or by investigating and even prosecuting human rights and peace organizations.
The future of Israel is not linked to the corrupt, nondemocratic regimes which we prefer to call “moderate” Arab states, but to the masses of people who are willing to take to the streets to demand their rights. When we understand that correctly, we will make peace with Palestine, we will have real democracy and we will be a lot more secure.
[The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org) and is founding the Center for Israeli Progress (