A Chilly Welcome for Arab Democracy

By Assaf Sagiv

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The concept of “democracy” enjoys an immensely positive reputation in modern political parlance—so positive, in fact, that even regimes, such as communist dictatorships, that show utter disregard for their citizens’ rights have sought to cloak themselves in its coveted mantle. Yet democracy has not always enjoyed such favorable PR. In its cradle in ancient Greece, for example, it was frequently denounced as a vulgar form of government, endowing the lowly masses with the power and authority that only capable, sound-minded leaders deserve. Plato, himself no fan of democracy, famously compared it to a ship run by a band of reckless sailors:
Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering—every one is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing.1
The fear of the democratically empowered masses—the “many-headed beast,” as Horace called them2—has not abated with the passage of time; paradoxically, it surfaces today even in progressive Western societies. After all, at times even the most enlightened of democracies will function like an oligarchy, an apparently elected minority governing an apparently voting majority. As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière notes, the pretense of expressing the will of the people often masks a cynical ideology, by which “there is only one good democracy, the one that represses the catastrophe of democratic civilization.”3
The claim that liberal democracies are not averse to anti-democratic sentiment may seem far-fetched to some. Yet over the past few months, Israelis across the board have confirmed it time and again. Their reactions to the dramatic changes taking place throughout the Arab world reveal a deep-seated fear of the sudden democratic awakening in their neighborhood. This fear, it must be said, is not unfounded. On the contrary, it is validated by both past experience and strategic considerations. Still, its underlying motives ought to be carefully scrutinized, for we may just find that they are not altogether consistent with Israeli society’s enlightened self-image.
The political earthquake that has rocked the Middle East and Maghreb since the first tremors in Tunisia at the end of December 2010 has the whole world riveted. But for Israel, it was the fall of Egypt’s Mubarak regime, following massive public demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, that drew the most attention. This was not only because Mubarak’s ousting threatened to plunge the whole region into geostrategic uncertainty; it was also because the peace treaty with Egypt—and all of the political, economic, and security benefits it accords the Jewish state—was suddenly in real danger.
That the popular protest against the Mubarak regime was apparently inspired by democratic ideals did little to assuage the concerns of Israel’s leaders. In a way, this fact only exacerbated the sense of apocalyptic dread that had settled over the corridors of power in Jerusalem. Addressing a conference of the European Friends of Israel lobby, held in the Knesset in February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a dire warning for the future. “The Egyptians may choose to embrace the model of a secular reformist state with a prominent role for the military,” he conceded, but then added that, “There is a second possibility: that the Islamists exploit the influence to gradually take the country into a reverse direction—not towards modernity and reform, but backward. And there’s still a third possibility—that Egypt would go the way of Iran, where calls for progress would be silenced by a dark and violent despotism that subjugates its own people and threatens everyone else.”4 In a similar vein, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, giving an interview to ABC News, warned that if the transition to democracy were undertaken too quickly, Egypt could fall into extremist hands. “The real winners of any short-term election,” he said, “will be the Muslim Brotherhood.”5 Neither was President Shimon Peres, the once-hopeful herald of the “new Middle East,” especially enthusiastic about developments on the other side of Israel’s southern border. In a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Peres evoked the bitter experience of Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian Authority’s 2006 elections. “Democracy cannot start and end in elections only,” he said. “True democracy begins on the day after the elections, in granting human rights and concern for citizens’ welfare. If a religious extremist dictatorship rises the day after democratic elections, what are democratic elections worth?”6
The chilly response with which Israelis greeted the Egyptian revolution was coupled by their deep sense of disappointment over the United States’ reaction. The pressure the American administration exerted over Hosni Mubarak to step down was seen by many Israelis as a stab in the back of a loyal ally. And, if that were not enough, the statements emerging from the White House and the State Department sounded strangely triumphant. “The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard,” Barack Obama ceremoniously announced following Mubarak’s resignation. “Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”7 President Obama’s remarks reflected the American consensus across the political spectrum; among the chorus of congratulations could be heard even his neoconservative rivals, longtime advocates of democratization in the Arab world. The gap between Washington and Jerusalem has rarely seemed so wide. Journalist Shmuel Rosner summarized this discrepancy succinctly: “The Israelis are not particularly concerned whether Egypt will have a democracy or a dictatorship—as long as stability is maintained and the peace accord upheld,” he wrote. “The Americans, by contrast, are beside themselves with excitement whenever they spot a transition toward democracy. Both positions are well founded—both may well turn out to be wrong.”8
Pessimists in Israel will certainly be glad if their fears turn out to be baseless. That said, their qualms over the democratic transformation in Egypt is based on concrete reasoning—as well as several other motives, which should perhaps be reexamined.
The main source of Israeli wariness lies in radical Islam’s proven ability to exploit democratic sentiment to its ends. Incidents that illustrate this capacity are easy enough to recall; Hamas’ victory in the democratic elections held by the Palestinian Authority five years ago is just one example. Neither can we ignore the marked similarities between what took place in Egypt this February and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which brought the ruthless ayatollahs to power. The popular uprising that forced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to flee Iran also comprised a broad coalition of organizations—secular liberals, Marxists, and anarchists, to name a few. It didn’t take long, however, for the clergy to grab the reins of power: Its unity, resolve, and tremendous popularity simply left its competitors no chance.
It is still too early to assess the political clout of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—years of persecution by the authorities and repeated ballot fraud allow for only rough appraisals of its real power—but there is no denying it is well-poised to play a major part in determining the future of the country. Just days after the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the most influential cleric of Sunni Islam alive today, returned to Egypt after some fifty years abroad. In a speech delivered on February 18 to over one million people gathered at Tahrir Square, al-Qaradawi—a fervent supporter of suicide terrorism and the Islamic takeover of Europe—called for the establishment of a civil government founded on the principles of democracy, pluralism, and freedom. However carefully chosen his words may have been, and however directed to appeal to the interim military government and the champions of secular democracy, it is doubtful they did much to assuage the concerns of those accustomed to hearing similar tunes from Islamic extremists—that is, shortly before they launch into a systematic, bloody clampdown on their opponents. In a 1993 article published in Commentary, Middle East scholar Martin Kramer noted this sad truth, which we would do well to remember today:
Fundamentalists insist they have not demanded free elections to promote democracy or the individual freedoms that underpin it, but to promote Islam. Indeed, when leading fundamentalist thinkers do address the broader question of democracy, it is not to argue its compatibility with Islam but to demonstrate democracy’s inferiority to Islamic government. Such a virtuous government, they affirm, can rest only on obedience to the divinely given law of Islam, the shariah.9
Tension over the growing Islamic threat, however, is not the only reason for the concern felt by most Israelis in the wake of the Tahrir Square Revolution. Their trepidation also stemmed from the knowledge that among the Egyptian people, the Jewish state has few friends. The Israeli-Egyptian peace, which has never been particularly warm, is largely restricted to cooperation between the governments and the political, security, and economic establishments of both countries. Among the Egyptian masses, hatred toward Israel and the Jews rages unchecked. The Egyptian media constantly disseminate conspiracy theories and blood libels that depict the Jewish people in general, and the Zionist entity in particular, as the embodiment of evil. The incitement reached absurd levels this past December, when, following a string of deadly shark attacks on tourists vacationing on the shores of the Sinai Peninsula, rumors spread in Egypt that the fearsome predator responsible was unleashed by the Israeli secret service. South Sinai Governor Muhammad Abdel Fadil Shousha remained cautiously agnostic on the issue. “What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark [into the Red Sea] to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question,” he told an Egyptian news agency, “but it needs time to be confirmed.”10
Stories of this kind, which reveal a disturbing tendency to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, are perceived by the Israeli public (or at least broad segments of it) as evidence of the enormous gulf between Western civilization and the Muslim world. “They are products of a culture in which to tell a lie… creates no dissonance,” Ehud Barak said in an interview with historian Benny Morris in 2002. “They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture.”11 This impression does little to strengthen Israelis’ faith in the ability or willingness of the Egyptian people—and of the entire Arab world, for that matter—to establish an advanced, Western-style democracy. After all, a society of this kind is possible only if the individuals and groups that constitute it operate autonomously and rationally, exchanging information and ideas through free and critical discourse. The Arab political sphere, however, is plagued by conspiratorial and paranoid thinking, inflammatory rhetoric, and a herd mentality—hardly the ideal conditions for the development of “public reason.”12 Moreover, according to a prevalent view, supported by some of the leading Middle East scholars, the rigid authoritarian tradition that has taken root in the region does not allow for the formation of a true liberal democracy.13 From this standpoint, at least, it seems clear that anyone expecting to see Egypt transformed into a “civilized” nation is bound to be bitterly disappointed.
At the same time, one must admit that Israeli skepticism regarding the prospects of Arab democracy is significantly tainted by political and cultural arrogance. The Jewish state prides itself on being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and it sometimes seems as though it wants very much to retain that exclusive status. Yet this conceit of chosenness is perhaps misplaced. For alongside their scorn for the Arabs’ inability to lead a fully democratic life, more and more Israelis are displaying a clear disdain for democracy itself.
The numbers—which point toward a trend—should be keeping public officials and educators up at night. The 2010 Israeli Democracy Index, for instance, confirms what every citizen attuned to passing conversations on the street, in coffee shops, and aboard buses already knows: Israelis believe their democracy is weak and ineffective. Sixty percent of those surveyed saw the value of “strong leadership” that would solve problems efficiently. Fifty-five percent supported the statement “Israel’s overall situation would be much better if there were less attention paid to the principles of democracy and greater focus on observing the law and on public order.”14
But the post-democratic mood has other, subtler manifestations within the Israeli public. Namely, it has also made its way into certain liberal-progressive circles that have lost all hope of governing the state through electoral force. These cliques watched helplessly as political hegemony slipped through their fingers in the 1977 elections, which brought into power sectors that embraced a conservative ideology and a populist style of leadership—both of which they found distasteful. Ever since then, they have lamented the fate that has forced them to share the public sphere with the hoi polloi. “Without adopting drastic measures to deny certain rights, the power of decision will be granted to people who may be described as curious, to put it mildly,” warned literary critic Yoram Bronowski in 1977, a few weeks after the Likud party came to power.15 A number of years later, journalist Amnon Dankner, who would later become the editor-in-chief of the daily Maariv, published an angry article in which he decried the debasement of Israeli society:
I am placed in a cage with a deranged baboon and told: Okay, now you’re together and you’ll have to start dialoguing, there’s no alternative. Pardon me, but it keeps biting my neck. How am I supposed to talk to it? It has hatred I am unequipped with. It has sharp teeth, unlike mine. What do you want me to converse with it about? All this bizarre zoo needs is some good guards, but where are they?16
Neither did Benny Ziffer, the editor of the Haaretz literary supplement and a provocative blogger, mince words when describing the disdain he feels toward the people in whose midst he is forced to live:
It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post on this blog. Why? Because I’m trying to maintain my sanity. And how do I go about trying to maintain my sanity? By telling myself that I do not want to belong or feel that I belong to this assemblage erroneously called the Jewish people, of which, according to the population registry laws, I am said to be a part. It doesn’t take long for this attempt to fail: Once more, against my will, I care about what’s happening here, once more I write a post and feel frustrated that mine is like a call in the wilderness, and once more I tell myself: I won’t write you another single line, you bunch of vile people. You can all perish, for all I care. And I try to return to living my life in peace, without watching too much TV, with my books and CDs. Until the next round of frustration.17
Ziffer’s remarks are singularly blunt, but the frustration they express is not uncommon. Thus do many sympathetic members of the former “ruling class” look to the protection of a fundamentally non-representational institution: the Supreme Court.18 Their pretense of safeguarding democracy is inconsistent with their obvious distaste for the demos.
This paternalistic approach, which expresses nothing but contempt for the masses, occasionally inspires a willingness to justify, or even identify with, oppressive regimes in other societies. “The Egyptians are a wonderful people, really wonderful,” wrote Ziffer, with a tinge of cordial haughtiness, following the popular uprising in Tahrir Square. “The secret of their charm lies in not knowing what it is they want and waiting for somebody from above to decide what to do.”19 Columnist Gadi Taub similarly criticized the United States for its naןve support of Egypt’s revolution: “The Americans cannot grasp this very simple fact: that the will of the people is not always democratic,” he explained. “To have a democracy it’s not enough to turn to the people; it is also necessary that the people want democracy, rather than, for example, ‘a strong leader,’ totalitarian communism, or Islamic fundamentalism. In other words, Obama forgets that of the three possibilities—democracy, dictatorship, and the spread of fundamentalism—sometimes it’s best to choose the second. Not just to preclude the third, but also to prevent the first from engendering the third.”20 The line of argument set out by Ziffer and Taub (and many others, who don’t dare to voice their opinions so baldly) is as clear as its conclusion is unambiguous: Certain peoples are simply not mature enough to enjoy the fruits of democracy. They are better off left where they belong—under the thumb of a levelheaded autocrat, who understands the need for security and stability.
The Jewish people bestowed upon humankind a glorious tradition of opposition to tyranny and injustice.21 Unfortunately, the liberty of others was not always its highest priority—a fact for which it has on several occasions paid a heavy price. Though excuses for antisemitism have never been in short supply, any show of Jewish support for despots, conquerors, and racists certainly won’t help abate this hatred.
Alas, Israel has not shied away from cooperating with oppressive regimes, such as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the military junta in Myanmar, or the white minority rule in South Africa (with which the Jewish state maintained close military ties). Collaboration with these governments was perhaps a matter of necessity during periods in which Israel had to fight for its existence—against, for example, an Arab coalition backed by the Soviet bloc—but today, circumstances are largely different. Precisely because Israel suffers from such a negative image in world opinion, it must choose its friends carefully, and avoid any association with tyrants and mass murderers. The axiom “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are” should be taken to heart by the leaders of a country ranked, together with Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, at the bottom of a BBC global popularity index.22
Obviously, PR considerations are not the only reason Israelis should not lament Mubarak’s fall from power. Despotism, even of the restrained, pseudo-democratic variety that ruled in Egypt, always requires an enemy, whether real or imagined, to justify its oppressive measures and provide the masses with a convenient target for their wrath. It is therefore clear why the Egyptian authorities never took pains to constrain the incitement that ran wild against Israel, and in certain cases even inflamed it. Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Israeli minister, recalled a conversation he held with the former Egyptian president on the subject:
Shortly before the Alexandria summit, in which leaders of the three religions convened for a conciliation meeting, I met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At the meeting I criticized him for the antisemitism that was flourishing in his country, but he made do with a statement that revealed his tactics: “You don’t understand. The antisemites are my greatest opponents.” He wanted to say that this is how they find release, through expressions of hostility and hatred. They have two options: to hate us or to hate him. And he, presumably, prefers the former.23
After a sustained period of systematic brainwashing, animosity toward Israel and the Jews has struck deep roots in the Egyptian public consciousness. It is doubtful whether a democratic government would change—or even wish to change—this sentiment. Pronouncements made in recent months by prominent figures in the Egyptian opposition only reinforce the impression that the already frosty relations between the two states will likely deteriorate after the orderly transition to an elected civil government. However, if the peace accord survives the upcoming turbulence, it could conceivably be placed on a new and possibly even stronger foundation than the one on which it currently rests; it could, perhaps, garner broad public support, which it currently lacks in Egyptian society, and transform—for the first time since its signing—into a peace between peoples, not just governments.
This scenario certainly requires a good dose of optimism. But even if it does not come to pass, and Israel’s southern neighbor ends up turning it a cold shoulder (or, worse, waving a clenched fist)—even then, the Jewish state would do well to adopt a favorable attitude toward democratization in the Arab world. For strategic interests notwithstanding, Israel must also take moral considerations into account.
Unfortunately, the fear of radical Islam often drives even staunch liberals to forget their principles and rise up in defense of “strong” leaders who are proud of their ability to subdue—and perhaps even uproot—religious fanatics. The West, which feels an acute vulnerability on account of its commitment to human rights, prays these brutal vassals will shield it from the fundamentalist threat (Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi tried to play on this vulnerability when he explained, during the initial days of the uprising against his regime, that the rebels were actually al-Qaida activists seeking to stake a claim on Maghreb soil). But the political logic of choosing the “lesser of two evils” undermines the moral basis of the struggle against jihadists. When all is said and done, if this struggle is truly fought in the name of democracy, freedom, and equality, it cannot abandon these ideals for the sake of victory. For what would be the point of such an achievement? One cannot drive away darkness with the gloom of dusk.
The possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood will indeed seize the reins of power in Egypt, Syria, or any another Arab country is a real concern, yet if we are to uphold the same liberties that the West is sworn to defend—and that the extremists strive to destroy—it is a risk we have to take. The recognition of the fundamental right of all peoples to govern themselves, free from oppression, is the central imperative of modern democracy. Giving up on it is tantamount to an admission that people, after all, are not created equal, are not endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To those who argue that the Egyptian people are not yet ready for democracy, an apt reply can be found in the words of British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay, written in 1825:
Many politicians of our time are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water till he had learnt to swim. If men are to wait for liberty till they become wise and good in slavery, they may indeed wait forever.24
The Jewish people, whose hope and struggle for freedom have been an inspiration to the entire world, cannot lend a hand—or even silently assent—to the degradation and repression of other peoples. We cannot ignore the cry of the persecuted merely because the persecutors proffer their friendship, and we cannot afford to nurture an anti-democratic mood that shows little respect for the common man and the will of the many. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,”25 the Torah enjoins us, and this obligation, which instructs us to identify with the oppressed and offer them our support, we would be wise to uphold.
Assaf Sagiv
April 2011

1. Plato, The Republic, Book VI, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Anchor, 2001), p. 170.
2. Horace, Satires and Epistles, trans. John Davie (Oxford: Oxford, 2011), p. 67.
3. Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006), p. 4.
4. Ethan Bronner, “Quiet Worries as Israel Watches an Ally Depart,” New York Times, February 12, 2011.
5. Joshua Miller, “Israeli Def. Min. Ehud Barak Says Egypt’s Revolution Not Like Iran’s,” ABC News, February 13, 2011.
6. “Peres: Democracy Is Not Only About Elections,” JPost.com, February 1, 2011, www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?ID=206218&R=R1.
7. Natasha Mozgovaya, “Obama: People of Egypt Have Spoken, Military Must Ensure Credible Transition,” Haaretz, February 11, 2011.
8. Shmuel Rosner, “Likudniks Are Not Neoconservatives,” Nrg News, February 7, 2011, www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/209/126.html [Hebrew].
9. Martin Kramer, “Islam vs. Democracy,” Commentary, January 1993, p. 38.
10. Reuters, “Mossad May Be Behind Red Sea Shark Attacks,” Ynetnews, December 6, 2010, www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3995302,00.html.
11. Benny Morris, “Camp David and After: An Exchange (Part One: An Interview with Ehud Barak),” New York Review of Books, June 13, 2002.
12. The concept of “public reason,” which has taken root in liberal discourse, is borrowed from Immanuel Kant’s famous essay “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” in James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1996), pp. 58-64.
13. See, for example, Eli Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Political Culture (London: Taylor & Francis, 1993).
14. Asher Arian et al., Auditing Israeli Democracy: Democratic Values in Practice (Jerusalem: Israel Democracy Institute, 2010), www.idi.org.il/sites/english/SectionArchive/Documents/Auditing_Israeli_Democracy_2010.pdf.
The problematic perception of democracy found among a growing portion of the public stems, to a large extent, from the impression that this form of government fails to meet its fundamental obligation to represent the will of the voter. In a study conducted by the Israeli Geocartography Knowledge Group in January of this year, over half of those surveyed said they feel their vote “has no impact” or “has a slight impact” on what transpires in the country. See “Voters with No Impact,” Tomorrow: The New Jewish Agenda 4 (January 20, 2011).
15. Yoram Bronowski, “Days of Tidings,” Haaretz, June 14, 1977 [Hebrew].
16. Amnon Dankner, “I Don’t Have a Sister,” Haaretz, February 12, 1983 [Hebrew].
17. Benny Ziffer, “The Common Thread Between Offensiveness and Extremist Violence,” Haaretz, January 6, 2010 [Hebrew].
18. See Menahem Mautner, Law and Culture in Israel at the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2008) [Hebrew].
19. Benny Ziffer, “Egypt, Please Sober Up Before It’s Too Late,” Haaretz, January 30, 2011 [Hebrew].
20. Gadi Taub, “American Failure: Between Elections and Democracy,” Yediot Aharonot, February 8, 2011 [Hebrew].
21. See Yoram Hazony, “The Jewish Origins of the Western Disobedience Tradition,” Azure 4 (Summer 1998), pp. 14-56.
22. In a survey conducted among 28,000 respondents in 27 countries, participants were asked to rank 17 countries according to their positive or negative influence on the world. The results placed Israel fourth from the bottom, just above Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran. See “Israel Grouped with Iran, North Korea as World’s Least Popular Countries,” Haaretz, March 7, 2011.
23. Michael Melchior, “Religion Can Be a Fertile Ground for Mideast Peace,” Haaretz, March 18, 2011.
24. Thomas Babington Macaulay, Macaulay’s Essay on Milton (New York & London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1895), p. 62.
25. Deuteronomy 5:15.

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