Over the last few weeks, we Egyptians were in a collective roller-coaster: falling mercilessly from the heights of exhilarating hope into the abyss of deep fear, often many times during the same day. We asked ourselves: are we going to pull it off and rid ourselves from the suffocating authoritarianism? Is it possible, just by marching over Liberation Square, to overthrow a system of repression that caged our minds and souls for decades? Would we finally be able to climb out of the dark hole in which we were kept and walk the earth, free men and women? And if we can do this by standing up for our rights, can’t we improve our collective lot in other areas as well?
While we were asking ourselves these questions, Israel’s prime minister came out in support of President Mubarak, and I wondered whether Benjamin Netanyahu was trying to accelerate Mubarak’s downfall by embracing him publicly. But then I realized that a good deal of American constituencies, worried about Israel, started to swing in favor of keeping the regime in place. I wrote to a number of Israelis and Americans whose opinions I trust, asking them what they thought of Netanyahu’s position. Although many of them agreed that his statement was inappropriate, they concurred that the opinion he expressed was shared by the majority of those concerned about the future of Israel, especially in the United States. This sentiment is what really worried me.
I accept self-centeredness, but within reasonable limits. I do not expect Israel and its American supporters to think of the welfare of Egyptians first, and I long ago reconciled myself to expect an ‘Israeli angle’ on every regional foreign policy issue. To a certain extent, this is how all peoples operate: thinking how the plight or fortune of others impacts on their own fate. When it comes to the concern for Israel, a concern rooted in a deep sense of threat, I’m willing to show more understanding. But there is a fundamental difference between thinking of those we love first, thinking of those we love only, and not thinking at all. Suggesting that the American position over Egypt’s revolution should be conditioned by its impact on Israel’s freedom of action belongs to the latter two categories.
First, Egypt’s revolution has been about Egyptian affairs only, with almost no reference to foreign policy. No one was chanting death to the US or to Israel. The dominant themes were related to freedom, social justice and dignity. Egyptians who took to the streets in millions were expressing their rejection of an ossified regime which ignored their concerns for decades. It is somehow miraculous that no one tried to capitalize on the ‘Palestinian cause’ or ‘anti-American’ sentiments. People ignored these issues; why Israeli leaders injected themselves into the story and brought undue attention upon themselves is a mystery to me.
Second, even if the Egyptian revolution posed serious questions to Israel, is it conceivable to quell the voices of eighty-five million people and practically enslave them in order to avoid facing these questions? Shall we then support those who ordered security forces to shoot at protesters at will, killing three hundred Egyptians in two days? And how many are we prepared to kill in order to keep an unpopular ruler in place — and for what aim? If the only answers to these questions entail supporting the moves of a right-wing government in Israel to keep a couple of isolated settlements or annex a couple of square kilometers in the West Bank, then we’re talking about something morally reprehensible indeed.
Third, preemptively antagonizing a whole population is nonsensical. Policy towards Egypt is too important to be based on prejudice and stereotypes. What is happening in Egypt is not a replica of 1979 Iran or Hamas in 2006 (if its comparable to anything at all, Iran in 2009 would be the closest case). The Egyptian revolution is in large part the making of a generation that for too long suffocated under the garb of old men running Egypt according to archaic rules. Those who took to the streets do not want violence or vendetta; they want to be part of the modern world. They express a deep desire for renewal, and are doing so in peace and in diversity.
Egypt is witnessing a complete re-birth. The millions who marched to overthrow Mubarak want to revamp a hitherto sclerotic and dysfunctional public arena. This is good news for both the Arab World its neighbors and partners. Obviously there are risks involved for the US and for Israel, including a possible populist turn that would aim to fill the ‘dignity deficit’ caused by Mubarak’s perceived complicity with the American-Israeli agenda in the region. But these risks must be addressed with or without a revolution. In fact, this dignity deficit weighed heavily on Egyptian foreign policy during Mubarak’s reign and often reduced its margin of maneuver. Modernizing Egyptian politics will necessarily address the duplicity underwriting much of its foreign policy, especially in regards to Egypt’s choice of a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and its cooperation with the US, thereby allowing for far greater flexibility in its foreign policy. Egyptians want a pluralistic political system, a modern economy, an inclusive social system and a thriving cultural life. Achieving this requires integration in the world, not a fight with it; making Egyptian foreign policy more representative will make it more dignified and more reliable, not more aggressive.
Ultimately, the rebirth of Egypt is about making Egypt a normal country with normal politics and comprehensible policies. It is a reason for celebration, and if I were in the shoes of those who care most for Israel, I would whole heartedly wish Egypt Mazal Tov.
Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is a novelist and Political Science professor at the American University in Cairo. He is a former diplomat and UN political advisor.