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As Egyptian voters recently went to the polls in what was their first-ever opportunity to choose a president in a free election, one element was missing from most of the media coverage. There was no gloss of optimism about the way embracing freedom could transform the country or the region.
The reason is obvious. More than a year after the “Arab Spring” protests brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak as well as dictators in Tunisia and Libya, it’s clear that the collapse of authoritarian regimes is not to be followed by a golden age of democracy. That is especially true in Egypt where election results are leading not to greater freedom but to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party dedicated to imposing an Islamist worldview on the country. The prospects for the preservation of democracy under such a government are slim. Even if, in the best-case scenario, the Brotherhood follows the same party as Turkey’s Islamist government, that is a formula for the gradual erosion of democratic values and secular rights.
All this calls into question a lot of the starry-eyed talk about the transformation of the region that not only followed the Arab Spring but also was heard during the Bush administration when hopes for bringing democracy to the Muslim world burned the brightest. Those in the United States and Israel that predicted nothing good would come of the fall of Mubarak are entitled to say, “I told you so.” The change in Cairo will have a tremendous impact on the Jewish state not only because it could lead to the junking of the historic treaty with Egypt but because an empowered Brotherhood gives the Hamas terrorist movement a powerful ally on Israel’s southern border.
The lesson to be learned here is that while it is a canard to claim, as some do, that Arabs and Muslims do not value freedom, underestimating the power of political Islam and its hold on the culture of the Muslim world is always a mistake. The particular circumstances that led to the rise of liberal democracy in the West have not been duplicated in the Middle East outside of Israel. That’s why Western democracy seems so alien in many Arab and Muslim countries where America’s secular political faith is no match for belief in the sovereignty of Islam.
As is the case with a lot of those who are hopeless optimists about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, part of the fault lies in the way many in the West assume others share our beliefs. Giving up the war to wipe out Israel and accepting a generous territorial compromise makes so much sense to believers in the peace process that they refuse to believe that most Palestinians still won’t say yes and instead blame Israel for the continuation of the conflict. In that same manner, many Americans simply assumed that the Arab Spring would naturally lead to Arab democracy.
Much as we would wish it otherwise, Israel is fated to remain a lonely Jewish outpost of democracy in a hostile region where religion dictates the continuance of the war against Zionism. It’s future will be secured not by false hopes for peace or concessions but by the buttressing of its economic and military strength.
We should also disabuse ourselves of the myth that either Israel or the United States can control events in the Arab world. Much as the Obama administration fumbled the end of the Mubarak regime, it cannot be blamed for the dictator’s fall. Once the Egyptian Army had decided it would not slaughter protesters on his behalf (as Bashar Assad’s security forces continue to do in Syria), he was beyond help. Nor is there much the West can do to influence Egypt now though more support for the marginal forces promoting genuine democracy there and elsewhere in the Arab world would be a good idea.
Merely holding elections isn’t democracy. Perhaps, as Natan Sharansky prophesied, peace will be possible once there is genuine democratic change in the Arab world. But it looks like the wait for that happy outcome may be as long as that for the Messiah.