Cairo Burning

Is this civil unrest good for Egypt? The United States? The Jews?

When my daughter Susanna and I went to Cairo in 2000, I made an impulsive proposal to the friendly bellman who helped check us in, and lo and behold we were riding up to the pyramids on horseback before dawn the next morning, with the full moon setting at sunrise. It was one of those experiences you remember with a smile decades later, maybe even on your deathbed. Surely a people who could build such things so long ago might still do great things today?

Coming back to the city was altogether different. The density of the highway traffic, the crowds on the streets below, the uncollected garbage, the half-built flimsy apartment buildings with people living on their top floors open to the sky—all this gave me pause. Everywhere we toured in Cairo over the next few days, except for the rich central hotel district, dust clouds rose around the car and half-visible children darted out of the street just in time, often with our sketchy driver honking.

The Egyptian population was then around 60 million. Just over a decade later, it is 80. It doubles every quarter century, with almost half under thirty. Cairo alone would be expected to double from 30 to 60 million. I did not see how stability could be maintained with such a large and rapidly growing youthful population, mostly very poor, and I wondered how long the “Cold Peace” with Israel would hold.

These questions are much more urgent now. No one in Israeli or world intelligence services predicted this uprising, which may spread throughout the region. No one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the near-nuclear-war between India and Pakistan, or the Iranian revolutions of 1979 or 2009 either. Certain moments in human history are just simply outside the models.

But what does this one portend?

I was at a Shabbat lunch the other day with an Egyptian-Jewish-American scientist, brilliant and successful, who cares deeply about Israel. He sees basically only good in what is going on. “A democratic Egypt will be good for Israel,” he said, and he is confident of the outcome.

But people in Israel are worried, including seasoned commentators and national politicians. Peace with Egypt, however tepid, has been a vital Israeli strategic asset for three decades, and although a heroic Anwar Sadat was responsible for starting it, Hosni Mubarak kept it going for almost all that time. A main editorial in Haaretz today is called, “The West should encourage the new order of Mideast.” But what will that new order be?

According to the more centrist Jerusalem Post, also today, “the sad fact is that an overwhelming proportion of Egypt’s populace supports Islamic fundamentalists. When asked which they preferred, 59% said Islamists and 27% said modernizers, according to the latest Pew poll from last February.” I was not able to confirm these numbers, but the report did find that a majority of Egyptians (52 percent) had a favorable view of Hamas (compared to 44 percent unfavorable). Also, 95 percent of Egyptians had unfavorable opinions of Jews (interestingly, this compares with 35 percent for Israeli Arabs). As the photo from Haaretz shows, this is at least a minor theme in the current uprising.

The Jpost editorial goes on, “The mass protest on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other Egyptian cities is not an articulate political movement that has clear ideas about what it wants to achieve, other than the ousting of Mubarak. In fact, besides the Muslim Brotherhood or political parties taken over by it, there is not a single significant organized political movement in Egypt that can muster a large enough constituency to present a coherent alternative to the present regime.”

Today Prime Minister Netanyahu asked world leaders to stop criticizing Mubarak. Unlike President Obama, who has measured his every word, Bibi may be putting himself on the wrong side of history. But he knows that Israel can’t afford an Islamic Egypt on its border, or a chaotic Egypt, or even, probably, another Turkey. Some Israeli commentators are saying that Israel may have to turn to Syria to find a friend in the Middle East.

Commentators across the spectrum say that the IDF must develop new contingency plans for a possible war with Egypt, which it has not had to do for twenty years. This does not mean war, but it means war is less unlikely than it was.

I share the aspirations of the Egyptian people who have finally taken to the streets. They are not just legitimate, they are beautiful and just. I want them to achieve democracy.

But when I look at what happened in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in ’68, China in ’89, and Iran last year, I have to hold my breath. And when I think of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and many others, I see a history of democratic hopes and achievements trashed in a few weeks or months by violent autocracy.

I’m not saying that this can’t end well, but the risk is great. As (liberal) Brookings Institution expert Kenneth Pollack put it Saturday, “Revolutions are extremely unpredictable events, and the people who begin the revolution aren’t always the people who wind up ending them.”