A quest for freedom, dignity and justice…
Thomas L Friedman, 13 February 2011
For anyone who spent time in Tahrir Square these last three weeks, one thing was very obvious: Israel was not part of this story at all. This was about Egypt and about the longing of Egyptians for the most basic human rights, which were described to me by opposition Egyptian newspaper editor Ibrahim Essa as “freedom, dignity and justice.’’ It doesn’t get any more primal than that. And when young Egyptians looked around the region and asked: Who is with us in this quest and who is not?, the two big countries they knew were against them were Israel and Saudi Arabia. Sad. The children of Egypt were having their liberation moment and the children of Israel decided to side with Pharaoh – right to the very end.
It is so ironic, because one of the signs that was hanging in Tahrir Square all this past week was: “If Mubarak is Pharaoh, we are all Moses.’’
I am more worried today about Israel’s future than I have ever been, because I think that at time of great change in this region – and we have just seen the beginnings of it – Israel today has the most out-of-touch, in-bred, unimaginative and cliché-driven cabinet it has ever had.
Rather than even listening to what the democracy youth in Tahrir Square were saying and then trying to digest what it meant, this Israeli government took two approaches during the last three weeks: Frantically calling the White House and telling the president he must not abandon Pharaoh – to the point where the White House was thoroughly disgusted with its Israeli interlocutors – and using the opportunity to score propaganda points: “Look at us! Look at us! We told you so! We are the only stable country in the region, because we are the only democracy.’’
Israel’s government seemed oblivious to the irony of its message: “We are your only reliable ally because we are a democracy and whatever you do don’t abandon Mubarak and open the way there for democracy.’’
What is really unfortunate is that everyone can or should understand Israel’s strategic concerns. They are totally valid. The peace treaty with Egypt has been the cornerstone of Israeli strategy and economic growth for 30 years. Israel has scrupulously abided by the treaty. Of course Israelis are worried about convulsion here. How could they not? But the way they are handling themselves, is not helping them.
You did not need to be a Middle East expert to see that what was breaking loose here in the past three weeks was unprecedented – the first ever, largely bloodless (except for what the regime did), Facebook-driven, youth-led democracy uprising in an Arab country.
And what it exposed was that Mubarak’s stability was the stability of a dead hand. It was the stability of a leader who was presiding over a country where 40 percent of the population is living on $2 a day and 35 percent are still illiterate. It was the stability of a leader who had contempt for his people’s ability to run their own affairs. And that faux stability is now over.
Israel has one of the most dynamic high-tech sectors in the world. Israelis should understand better than anyone that stability is totally 20th century. In a flat world, it is all about dynamism now and how you manage constant change. Or as a Lebanese analyst here said to me, the right business model in today’s world is: “If it ain’t broke, break it – before your competition does.’’
Well, that’s what happened here. The ferocity and popularity of Mubarak’s ouster should have told Israelis that they need to get to work immediately on building a relationship with the dynamic new popular trend here, not to be trying to cling to a dictator who was totally out of touch with his people. And, as we sit here today, the popular trend is not with the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, what makes the uprising here so impressive – and in that sense so dangerous to other autocracies in the region – is precisely the fact that it is not owned by, and was not inspired by, the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is so much more powerful than that. As I said, it is being propelled by the most basic, universal human emotions – a quest for freedom, dignity and justice. That is what the other Arab autocracies – and Iran – fear. It is not about anything narrow, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, America or Palestine. It cannot easily be pigeon-holed and delegitimized. Most of all, it is not about some populist upsurge that craves restarting the war with Israel. It is all about a people who crave the chance to restart their own future, their own lives.
The Obama Administration and its utterly out-of-touch envoy Frank G. Wisner did not get this early on. But President Obama, or actually, Barack Obama – because he seemed to finally shuck off all his own expert advisers and give voice to his real, personal feelings – eloquently got America back in line with the real currents here with his post-Mubarak speech.
All Israel had to say was that it appreciated the long years in which President Mubarak had kept the peace, but that it now stands in awe of the Egyptian people’s quest for dignity, freedom and justice and the Israeli people look forward to working with whatever democratic government Egyptians build. Very simple.
I thought the one Israeli figure who totally got it right was former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who, in a long-interview with the Jerusalem Post’s editor David Horovitz last Friday, said, according to Horovitz, “that partnerships with dictatorships are unsustainable – that people cannot permanently be repressed, that they will push for freedom the moment they sense weakness in their tyrannical leaderships. In his assessment, Israel and the West are fortunate that this Arab revolution is unfolding in countries still closely tied to the West, in societies yet to have been battered into an overwhelming retreat toward Islamic fundamentalism.’’
As Sharansky put it in his own words: “If the free world helps the people on the streets, and turns into the allies of these people instead of being the allies of the dictators, then there is a unique chance to build a new pact between the free world and the Arab world.”
I think he is exactly right – not because I know where Egypt is heading, or because I think it is on some smooth track now toward certain democracy. It is because I don’t know where Egypt is going. I just know this: the old order here has been broken. When it comes to Egypt, stability has left the building. The only question left is what kind of unstable Egypt is Israel going to have on its borders – an Egypt where the military clings to power and fights the people, like Pakistan, and in the process radicalizes the radicals even more, or an Egypt that, with many ups and downs, is led by the people and gradually finds its way toward a democratic future that makes it look like South Africa or Indonesia one day.
It is the latter dynamic Egypt, not the dead stable Egypt of Mubarak, that Israel should want, because that is a country that will be focused primarily on catching up with a world that has left its people behind. Israel has very little to contribute to democracy-building in Egypt. Egyptians don’t want Israel’s help. But the Egyptian people will remember its hindrance.
If that dynamic democratic Egypt does come into being one day, Israel will have no choice but to make peace with 80 million Egyptians – instead of with just one man. And if that is the case, then Israel needs to be making it clear from today – exactly what Sharansky said – that it wishes the children of Egypt the same success on their road to freedom as all other peoples.