Over the past three weeks the Israeli media has been extremely interested in Egypt.
During the climatic days of the unprecedented demonstrations, television news programs spent most of their airtime covering the protests, while the daily papers dedicated half the news and opinion pages to the unfolding events.
Rather than excitement at watching history in the making, however, the dominant attitude here, particularly on television, was of anxiety – a sense that the developments in Egypt were inimical to Israel’s interests. Egypt’s revolution, in other words, was bad news.
It took a while for Israel’s experts on “Arab affairs” to get a grip on what was happening. During the early days of unrest, the recurrent refrain was that “Egypt is not Tunis.”
Commentators assured the public that the security apparatuses in Egypt are loyal to the regime and that consequently there was little if any chance that President Hosni Mubarak’s government would fall.
Once it became clear that this line of analysis was erroneous, most commentators followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lead and criticized President Barack Obama’s administration for not supporting Mubarak. The foreign news editor of one channel noted that “The fact that the White House is permitting the protests is reason for worry,” while the prominent political analyst Ben Kaspit expressed his longing for President George W. Bush.
“We remember 2003 when George Bush invaded and took over Iraq with a sense of yearning,” Ben Kaspit wrote. “Libya immediately changed course and allied itself with the West. Iran suspended its military nuclear program. Arafat was harnessed. Syria shook with fear. Not that the invasion of Iraq was a wise move (not at all, Iran is the real problem, not Iraq), but in the Middle East whoever does not walk around with a big bat in his hand receives the bat on his head.”
Israeli commentators are equivocal on the issue of Egyptian democracy. One columnist explained that it takes years for democratic institutions to be established and for people to internalize the practices appropriate for democracy, while Amir Hazroni from NRG went so far as to write an ode to colonialism:
“When we try to think how and why the United States and the West lost Egypt, Tunis, Yemen, and perhaps other countries in the Middle East, people forget that. The original sin began right after WWII, when a wonderful form of government that protected security and peace in the Middle East (and in other parts of the Third Word) departed from this world following pressure from the United States and Soviet Union. … More than sixty years have passed since the Arab states and the countries of Africa were liberated from the ‘colonial yoke,’ but there still isn’t an Arab university, an African scientist, or a Middle Eastern consumer product that has made a mark on our world.”
Fear and the Brotherhood
While only a few commentators are as reactionary as Hazroni, an Orientalist perspective permeated most of the discussion about Egypt, thus helping to bolster the already existing Jewish citizenry’s fear of Islam. Political Islam is constantly presented and conceived as an ominous force that is antithetical to democracy.
Thus, in the eyes of Israeli analysts, the protesters – that Facebook and Twitter generation – are deserving of empathy but also extremely naïve. There is a shared sense that their fate will end up being identical to that of the Iranian intellectuals who led the protests against the shah.
Channel Two’s expert on “Arab affairs” explained that “The fact that you do not see the Muslim Brotherhood does not mean they are not there,” and another expert warned his viewers not to “be misled by ElBaradei’s Viennese spirit; behind him is the Muslim Brotherhood.”
According to these pundits, the Muslim Brotherhood made a tactical decision not to distribute Islamist banners or to take an active part in leading the protests. One commentator declared that if the Muslim Brotherhood wins, then “elections are the end of the [democratic] process, not its beginning,” while an anchorman for Channel Ten asked former minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer whether “the person who says to himself: ‘How wonderful, at last the state of Egypt is a democracy,’ is naïve?”
The minister responded: “Allow me even to laugh. We wanted a democracy in Iran and in Gaza. The person who talks like this is ignoring the fact that for over a decade there has been a struggle of giants between the Sunni and Shia with tons of blood spilled. The person who talks about democracy does not live in the reality we live in.”
Ben-Eliezer’s response is telling, not least because it is well known that Israel supported the shah’s regime in Iran and has not proven itself to be a particularly staunch supporter of Palestinian democracy. Democracy in the Middle East is, after all, conceived by this and prior Israeli governments as a threat to Israel’s interests.
Dan Margalit, a well-known commentator, made this point clear when he explained that Israel does not disapprove of a democracy in the largest Arab country but simply privileges Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt over internal Arab affairs.
Israel, one should note, is not alone in this self-serving approach; most Western countries constantly lament the absence of democracy in the Arab world, while supporting the dictators and helping them remain in office. In English this kind of approach has a very clear name – it is called hypocrisy.
This article first appeared in Al Jazeera.