Friday, May 11, 2012

Challenging Israel’s Foreign Policy Regarding Egypt

This blog post represents a response to the comments that former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi made at the first annual Jerusalem Post Conference in New York.  The comments were reported in the Palm Beach Jewish Journal South on page 8 on May 2, 2012.  Gen. Ashkenazi expressed his nostalgia for the Mubarak regime by saying that although Mubarak “was not a Zionist”, he was an “anchor of stability” in the Middle East.

Characterizing a brutal dictator as an “anchor of stability” is grossly insulting to Egyptian secular democratic forces because it implies that ‘stability’ can come at the cost of the freedom and democratic rights of the Egyptian people.  Gen. Ashkenazi is adopting the long-standing Arabist policy of the State Department which advocates alliance with Arab dictators and the suppression of democratic forces in the Middle East region.  Gen. Ashkenazi fails to recognize that stability cannot be built upon oppression.  True stability can only be built upon a secure foundation of democracy, justice, peace, and equality.  Israel cannot be secure as a Jewish democracy as long as her neighbors in the Middle East remain in a state of captivity and repression. 

In fact, Arab dictatorships, like all authoritarian regimes, rely upon external scapegoats in order to remain in power.  For this reason, the Mubarak regime produced a constant stream of vicious anti-Israel propaganda which reinforced anti-Semitic stereotypes among the Egyptian people.  The Mubarak regime also worked hard to rebuild Egypt’s relationships with Israel’s Arab enemies such as Hafez Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. For this reason characterizing Mubarak as an ‘anchor of stability’ is mistaken.    

In addition, Gen. Ashkenazi is repeating the refrain of Israeli officials who voiced support for the Mubarak regime during the January, 2011, democratic uprising against him in Egypt.  Israeli officials should not directly interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs by calling for regime change in the midst of a popular uprising. 

But Israel made a major strategic mistake in supporting Mubarak during the freedom uprising in Egypt. By supporting the Mubarak regime in this moment of crisis, they sent an unnecessarily negative and hostile message to Egyptian secular democrats.   They told Egyptian secular democrats that Israel sided with their oppressors against them and did not want them to gain their freedom.  They only reinforced the perception of many Egyptian secular democrats that Israel opposes their freedom struggle and reduced the prospects for building an alliance with Egyptian secular democrats. 

Israel should have remained silent during the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak instead of repeatedly expressing support for the Mubarak regime.  By refusing to take sides in the conflict between Mubarak and his political opponents, Israel would have increased the chance of building an alliance with secular democratic groups in the aftermath of the fall of the Mubarak regime.  Instead Gen. Ashkenazi is compounding this strategic mistake of Israeli policymakers by voicing his nostalgia for the Mubarak regime 15 months after its collapse.

In addition, Gen. Ashkenazi is also unintentionally undermining Israel’s brave secular democratic allies in Egypt, such as Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad.  Sanad and his followers are courageously battling not only the forces of radical Islam in the form of both the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood.  They are also simultaneously confronting entrenched attitudes of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment among most Egyptian liberals and the ongoing repression of the Egyptian military.  

The best thing Israeli officials can do to support Sanad and his followers amid the highly perilous political conditions in Egypt is to stop expressing their nostalgia for the Mubarak regime.  Sanad and his followers regrettably seem to represent only a small minority of even Egyptian liberals.  But if Israel stopped supporting Mubarak 15 months after his removal from power, it would go a long way toward helping Egyptian secular democratic allies of Israel such as Sanad.  

 In addition, Gen. Ashkenazi also failed to make a distinction between Islam and radical Islam in his comments about the Arab Spring.  He characterized the Arab Spring as an “Islamic storm.”  Conflating Islam with radical Islam in this manner is a huge mistake because it undermines the forces of moderation within the Islamic world.   The central danger to Egypt and Tunisia in the aftermath of their recent political transformations is radical Islam, not Islam itself. 

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