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February 13, 2011

Tsunami in Egypt

By Uri Avnery

Gush Shalom

UNTIL THE very last moment, the Israeli leadership tried to keep Hosni
Mubarak in power.

It was hopeless. Even the mighty United States was impotent when faced
with this tsunami of popular outrage.

In the end it settled for second best: a pro-Western military dictatorship. But
will this really be the outcome?

WHEN CONFRONTED with a new situation, Obama’s first response is
generally admirable. Then, it seems, second thoughts set in. And third. And
fourth. The end result is a 180 degree turn. When the masses started to
gather in Tahrir Square, he reacted exactly like most decent people in the US
and, indeed, throughout the world. There was unbounded admiration for
those brave young men and women who faced the dreaded Mukhabarat
secret police, demanding democracy and human rights. How could one not
admire them? They were non-violent, their demands were reasonable, their
actions were spontaneous, they obviously expressed the feelings of the
vast majority of the people. Without any organization to speak of, without
leadership, they said and did all the right things. Such a sight is rare in
history. No sansculottes screaming for blood, no cold-minded Bolsheviks
lurking in the shadows, no Ayatollahs dictating their actions in the name of
God. So Obama loved it. He did not hide his feelings. He practically called on
the dictator to give up and go away. If Obama had stayed this course, the
result would have been historic. From being the most hated power in the
Arab world, the US would have electrified the Arab masses, the Muslim
region, indeed much of the Third World. It could have been the beginning of
a completely new era. I believe that Obama sensed this. His first instincts are
always right. In such a situation, a real leader – that rarest of all animals –
stands out.

BUT THEN came the second thoughts. Small people started to work on him.
Politicians, generals, “security experts”, diplomats, pundits, lobbyists,
business leaders, all the “experienced” people – experienced in routine
affairs – started to weigh in. And, of course, the hugely powerful Israel lobby.
“Are you crazy?” - they admonished him. To forsake a dictator who happens
to be our son-of-a-bitch? To tell all our client dictators around the world that
we shall forsake them in their hour of need? How naïve can you get?
Democracy in an Arab country? Don’t make us laugh! We know the Arabs! You
show them democracy on a platter and they would not know it from baked
beans! They always need a dictator to keep them in shape! Especially these
Egyptians! Ask the British! The whole thing is really a conspiracy of the
Muslim Brotherhood. Look them up on Google! They are the only alternative.
It’s either Mubarak or them. They are the Egyptian Taliban, worse, the
Egyptian al-Qaeda. Help the well-meaning democrats to overthrow the
regime, and before you know it you will have a second Iran, with an Egyptian
Ahmadinejad on Israel’s Southern border, hooking up with Hezbollah and
Hamas. The dominos will begin to fall, starting with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Faced with all these experts, Obama caved in. Again.

OF COURSE, every single one of these arguments can easily be refuted.

Let’s start with Iran. The naïve Americans, so the story goes, forsook the
Shah and his dreaded Israeli-trained secret police in order to promote
democracy, but the revolution was taken over by the Ayatollahs. A cruel
dictatorship was replaced by an even crueler one. This is what Binyamin
Netanyahu said this week, warning that the same is inevitably bound to
happen in Egypt. But the true Iranian story is quite different.

In 1951, a patriotic politician named Mohammad Mossadegh was elected in
democratic elections – the first of their kind in Iran. Mossadegh, neither a
communist nor even a socialist, instituted sweeping social reforms, freed
the peasants and worked mightily to turn backward Iran into a modern,
democratic, secular state. In order to make this possible, he nationalized the
oil industry, which was owned by a rapacious British company which paid Iran
miniscule royalties. Huge demonstrations in Tehran supported Mossadegh.
The British reaction was swift and decisive. Winston Churchill convinced
President Dwight Eisenhower that Mossadegh’s course would lead to
Communism. In 1953 the CIA engineered a coup, Mossadegh was arrested
and kept in isolation until his death 14 years later, the British got the oil back.
The Shah, who had fled, was put back on his throne again. His reign of terror
lasted until the Khomeini revolution, 26 years later. Without this American
intervention, Iran would probably have developed into a secular, liberal
democracy. No Khomeini. No Ahmadinejad. No talk about nuclear bombs.

NETANYAHU’S WARNINGS of the inevitable takeover of Egypt by the fanatical
Muslim Brotherhood, if democratic elections were held, sound logical, but
they are similarly based on willful ignorance. Would the Muslim Brothers take
over? Are they Taliban-like fanatics?

The Brotherhood was founded 80 years ago, long before Obama and
Netanyahu were born. They have settled down and matured, with a strong
moderate wing, much like the moderate, democratic Islamic party that is
governing Turkey so well, and which they are trying to emulate. In a
democratic Egypt, they would constitute a legitimate party playing its part in
the democratic process. (This, by the way, would have happened in
Palestine, too, when Hamas was elected – if the Americans, under Israeli
guidance, had not toppled the unity government and set Hamas on a
different course.) The majority of Egyptians are religious, but their Islam is
far removed from the radical kind. There are no indications that the bulk of
the people, represented by the youngsters in Tahrir Square, would tolerate a
radical regime. The Islamic bogeyman is just that – a bogeyman.

SO WHAT did Obama do? His moves were pathetic, to say the least. After
turning against Mubarak, he suddenly opined that he must stay in power, in
order to carry out democratic reforms. As his representative he sent to Egypt
a retired diplomat whose current employer is a law firm that represents the
Mubarak family (much as Bill Clinton used to send committed Jewish Zionists
to “mediate” between Israel and the Palestinians.) So the detested dictator
was supposed to institute democracy, enact a new liberal constitution, work
together with the very people he had thrown into prison and systematically
tortured. Mubarak’s pathetic speech on Thursday was the straw that broke
the back of the Egyptian camel. It showed that he had lost contact with reality
or, worse, is mentally deranged. But even an unbalanced dictator would not
have made such an atrocious speech had he not believed that America was
still on his side. The howls of outrage in the square while Mubarak’s
recorded speech was still being aired was Egypt’s answer. That needed no

BUT AMERICA had already moved. Its main instrument in Egypt is the army. It
is the army that holds the key to the immediate future. When the “Supreme
Military Council” convened on Thursday, just before that scandalous speech,
and issued a “Communique No. 1”, hope was mingled with foreboding.
“Communique No. 1” is a term well known in history. It generally means that a
military junta has assumed power, promising democracy, early elections,
prosperity and heaven on earth. In very rare instances, the officers indeed
fulfill these promises. Generally, what ensues is a military dictatorship of the
worst kind. This time, the communique said nothing at all. It just showed on
live TV that they were there – all the leading generals, minus Mubarak and
his stooge, Omar Suleiman. Now they have assumed power. Quietly, without
bloodshed. For the second time within 60 years.

IT IS worthwhile recalling the first time. After a period of turmoil against the
British occupiers, a group of young officers, veterans of the 1948 Israeli-Arab
war, hiding behind an elderly general, carried out a coup. The despised
ruler, King Farouk, was literally sent packing. He put to sea on his yacht from
Alexandria. Not a drop of blood was shed. The people were jubilant. They
loved the army and the coup. But it was a revolution from above. No crowds
in Tahrir Square. The army tried first to govern through civilian politicians.
They soon lost patience with that. A charismatic young lieutenant-colonel,
Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, emerged as the leader, instituted wide-ranging
reforms, restored the honor of Egypt and the entire Arab world – and
founded the dictatorship which expired yesterday. Will the army follow this
example, or will it do what the Turkish army has done several times: assume
power and turn it over to an elected civilian government? Much will depend
on Obama. Will he support the move to democracy, as his inclination will
undoubtedly suggest, or will he listen to the “experts”, Israelis included,
who will urge him to rely on a military dictatorship, as American presidents
have done for so long? But the chance of the United States of America, and
of Barack Obama personally, leading the world by shining statesmanship at a
historic moment 19 days ago has been wasted. The beautiful words have
evaporated. For Israel there is another lesson. When the Free Officers made
their revolution in 1952, in the whole of Israel only one single voice was
raised (that of Haolam Hazeh, the news magazine I was editing) calling upon
the Israeli government to come out in support. The government did the
opposite, and a historic chance to show solidarity with the Egyptian people
was lost. Now, I am afraid, this mistake will be repeated. The tsunami is being
viewed in Israel as a terrifying natural catastrophe, not as the wonderful
opportunity it is.