The photographs are as stunning as they are inspiring. The world is now totally focused on the democratic rebellion in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who Israel relies on for its current unassailable position, sends out the army to deal with demonstrators and what happens? The soldiers, including officers, joined with them, hugging them, kissing them, shaking hands and sharing posters and banners calling on Mubarak – a coward and autocrat in the pocket of the US and Israel – to resign, and demanding democracy.
Mubarak is finished so he no longer really needs to be afraid. The millions he has socked away in Swizz banks will serve him well unless someone assassinates him before he can spend it. No, the people who should be terrified are those in the Israeli government and political elite who for decades have treated Palestinians with racist brutality – worse than anything experienced under Apartheid in South Africa – with complete impunity.
The arrogance of Israel – and its delusional certainty that it can prevail virtually forever with its policies – is suddenly confronted by a new reality that all the colonial genius of the country could not and did not anticipate. The tens of thousands of Egyptian – and Jordanian and Algerian and Yemeni – citizens demanding democracy are calling Israel’s bluff. For decades Israel has been able to ridicule and thumb its nose at the nasty little dictatorships of the Arab world – arguing that only Israel was democratic.
The implication was clear: wouldn’t it be great of all the Arab states were democratic. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. What has kept Israel protected during its decades of illegal occupation, the seizure of Palestinian land and resources and its military adventures against Iran, Syria and Lebanon – along with unlimited US support – is the certain knowledge that the corrupt and morally bankrupt regimes surrounding it would never dare risk a confrontation.
No more. Overnight this comforting picture is in doubt. Nothing frightens Israel more than the prospect of democratic Arab regimes actually responding to the will of their populations – a will that includes dealing with the oppression of the Palestinian people. And while it may not be at the top of their lists of demands it is always there – a powerful and humiliating symbol of Israeli power and intransigence. It gnaws at the heart of every Arab with even a modicum of nationalist sentiment. If these regimes become democratic it is only a matter of time that they will be obliged to deal with the Palestinian question.
If there was any doubt that the place and role of Israel in the Middle East is threatened by the young people – and not so young – in the streets all you have to do is look at the response of President Barack Obama (and Canada). Obama in an official news conference response to the Egyptian developments stated that the US was “calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protestors. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal including rights to peaceful assembly …free speech …and the right to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. I also call on the Egyptian government to reverse its actions they’ve taken to interfere with access to the internet, cell phones and social networks which do so much to connect people in the 21st century… We have been clear that there must be reforms – political, social and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Obama revealed that he had spoken to Mubarak after the latter’s nation-wide speech on Friday, promising political and economic reform. Said Obama: “I told the president he had a responsibility to give meaning to those words.”
Say what? This whole performance – and an almost identical one by Canada’s Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon who usually chokes on the word democracy – will have come as a huge surprise to Mubarak who the US has supported in every ugly action he has taken in 30 years (including its own blockade of Gaza in co-operation with Israel). Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid – second only to Israel itself.
What has the US suddenly pining after democracy is nothing but another chapter in Middle East geo-politics. Obama, whose Mid East policies are no better and perhaps even worse than George W. Bush’s, is terrified that its past support of Mubarak will come back to bite the US. There is a powerful undercurrent of anger and resentment at the US for that support amongst the demonstrators even though it has not been a major element of the demonstrations. Obama is doing everything he can – or saying it – to short circuit any lumping together of Mubarak and the US as the movement for democracy grows.
More ominously, the US has been providing Egypt with billions in military aid over the 30 years since the country signed a peace agreement with Israel. It now has the most modern military machine, outside Israel, in the region. This was the price the US had to pay for having the most powerful and populous Mid east Arab state take itself out of the picture in terms of opposing Israeli policies. If that military machine ever got into the hands of the “wrong people” it could fundamentally change the politics in the area.
Front of mind for Obama and the US military is the fact that even though the Muslim Brotherhood is not leading these demonstrations, if an election was held tomorrow, they would win handily. The US may be hoping to stretch out the time-frame of democratic reform hoping for the development of a secular civil society that could help deliver a pro-Western government. But it was their dictator who did everything he could to suppress civil society and create the conditions that were perfect for the rapid growth of Islamic fundamentalism. You don’t create a robust civil society overnight, at least not one capable of defining the political culture.
Benjamin Netanyahu – the ultimate rejectionist regarding peace with the Palestinians – must wonder why the gods have turned against him. For weeks he has been pre-occupied with another disaster developing on his border: the formation in Lebanon of a government effectively controlled by Hezbollah. While the US and Canada are desperate to caste Hezbollah as nothing more than a “terrorist organization” they know better. It is a powerful player not just in the politics of the country but is a cultural and social force embedded in the fabric of the country. It is also the only military force that has fought the allegedly invincible Israeli military to a standstill, shaking the confidence of Israeli people and humiliating the army.
Israel, just two weeks ago feeling it had effective control of Middle East developments with its successful Stuxnet worm attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, is now facing an enemy it will not so easily neutralize: the pent-up anger of millions of mostly-young, educated Arab citizens in a half a dozen countries – and growing? – who will turn their attention to the brutal oppression of the Palestinians sooner or later. Israel, a country which for 30 years has behaved like a school yard bully backed by an armed big brother may suddenly be thinking about the consequences of it actions. It is the biggest change to come to the Arab world and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in two generations.
Murray Dobbin is a BC-based writer and journalist. This column originally appeared in his blog. Reprinted with Mr. Dobbin's kind permission.