Egypt’s unrest and the Arab-Israeli conflict

Jeff Goldberg linked to a New York Times opinion piece by Yossi Klein Halevi who writes that many Israelis fear that the demonstrations will result in exchanging the stability of Hosni Mubarak for the aggression of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Halevi writes that the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt neutralized the danger of an attack on Israel by the Arab states, which makes sense. Egypt provided the backbone of the failed wars of the Arab states against Israel. I’ve read different versions of the saying that different Arab groups wanted to fight Israel to the last Egyptian soldier. Until the treaty with Egypt, Israel’s allies in the region, Iran and Turkey, had come from outside the Arab world. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the recent tensions with Turkey’s Islamist government changed this, but these developments have been mitigated by peace with Egypt. So you can see where the worry comes from.

Goldberg also corresponded with Elliott Abrams to get a comment on Israeli fears of an Islamist Egypt and included Abrams’ response, which was interesting:

The Israelis first of all do not believe in the universality of democracy.  They believe what many American “experts” did in, say, 1950–democracy was fine for us and Western Europe, but not for Latins (too much Catholic culture) and Asians (too much Confucianism).  They believe Arab culture does not permit democracy.

They see a danger in Mubarak’s fall, and they are right: we do not know who will take over now or in a year or two from now.  But this is at bottom a crazy reaction.  What they are afraid of is the Muslim Brotherhood, right?  Mubarak has ruled for THIRTY YEARS and leaves us a Brotherhood that is that powerful?  Isn’t that all the proof we need that dictatorship is not the way to fight the Brotherhood?  He crushed the moderate and centrist groups and left the Brothers with an open field.  He is to blame for the Brothers’ popularity and strength right now.  The sooner he goes the better.

I think that Abrams shows too much confidence in “the universality of democracy.” Western democracy emerged in a specific cultural context, and the reassurances that Abrams (and the Bush administration in which he served) gave about opening up the Middle East to democracy have been at least partially damaged by Hamas being elected in the Palestinian territories and what seems to be a fairly dysfunctional new Iraqi state. But Bush was right that we won’t really know the verdict on his policies for a long time. We simply have no idea how it will all turn out.

Rick Richman wrote about this same subject at Commentary’s blog Contentions. He distinguishes between a “achievement” in Iraq and a failed policy in the Palestinian territories. Earlier, former Bush administration official Peter Wehner, also writing at Contentions, noted this Washington Post editorial’s account of progress toward democracy and stability in Iraq in 2010. I think that Richman and Wehner are too optimistic about Iraq, which has had many ups and downs since 2003. For example, I saw in the Chicago Tribune today that Transparency International ranked Iraq fourth from the bottom in its 2010 rankings that measure perceived public corruption. But it’s important to look at the positive things that Richman and Wehner note as we try to sort everything out.

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