Israel on the Islamist Surge in Egypt: Told You So

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Supporters of parliamentary candidate Nada Abo El Maty, of the Salafi party Al-Nour, talk to people outside a polling station during parliamentary elections in Cairo November 28, 2011.

The stunning showing by Salafist parties in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections surprised Israeli officials as much as the rest of the world. The estimated 40 percent of the vote that went to the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that founded modern political Islam, was about in line with pre-election polls. But the unexpectedly strong showing by the Salafis — fundamentalist Sunni Muslims who hold that the only true Islam was practiced around the time of the Prophet Mohammad, 1,300 years ago — could put a group that rejects modernism in a pivotal position in Egypt’s new democracy.

“This is even worse than we predicted,” a senior Israeli security official was quoted telling the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

In other words, events are unfolding much as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned they might in the heady first days of the Arab Spring, which Netanyahu said could well turn into an “Iranian winter.” The metaphor draws from the history of Iran’s 1979 revolution, which began as a popular uprising united in opposition to the despotic Shah, and thanks in part to the organization and motivation of religious activists, produced the radical theocracy that has controlled the country since.

“In February, when millions of Egyptians thronged to the streets in Cairo, commentators and quite a few Israeli members of the opposition said that we’re facing a new era of liberalism and progress,” Netanyahu told the Knesset last month, before polls even opened in Egypt. “They said I was trying to scare the public and was on the wrong side of history and don’t see where things are heading.”

But Facebook, the social networking site that let young liberals discreetly organize the first mass public protests, has proved no match for the Koran. The appeal of religious parties preaching virtue and justice is not to be underestimated in a region where, for most, faith is a central component of identity. “These new regimes depend on the masses, the raging masses, of which many of the people have been systematically poisoned with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda,” Netanyahu told parliament. “This incitement began even before the State of Israel was established, and continues at full steam today.”

That’s the view across Israel’s security establishment. Inspiring as much of the world found events in Tunisia, Tahrir Square and elsewhere, Israelis harbored deep wariness from the start. Some flat-out said Arabs can’t govern themselves. Others broke down the elements of Western democracies — universal education, civil society, rule of law — and concluded that elections are not the only thing that matter.

“Who says that protests against dictatorship necessarily lead to democracy?” asked Gabriel Ben-Dor, a political scientist at Haifa University, at a recent conference on Israel’s new security challenges at Bar-Ilan University. “Democracy is not what emerged from the revolution against the Tsars of Russia 100 years ago, nor has democracy emerged in many CIS states that threw off the Communist yoke. Thus there is no rational, logical or historical basis for
assuming that democracy will result from the revolutions underway today in the Arab world.”

Said Efraim Karsh of King’s College London: “Islam remains the strongest identity framework in Egyptian society in particular, and in Arab society generally. The Arab national dictatorships that were layered over this basic Islamic identity for the past 80 years were but a thin veneer of repression. With the fall of these dictatorships, what remains is the core Islamic underpinnings of society, and these will now come to the fore. Consequently, no democratic structures,processes or values are likely to emerge in the Arab world for many generations.”

Hard views, but essentially mainstream in Israeli society, judging by what even ordinary citizens were saying in interviews when the Arab Spring was in full blossom. Now Netanyahu baldly states that the Arab world is “moving not forward, but backward” and finds justification for holding back from hastening to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“I remember many of you urged me to take the opportunity to make hasty concessions, to rush to an agreement,” he said. “This is certainly not the time to listen to those who say follow your heart.”

Instead, the talk is of hardening perimeters, hunkering down and perhaps stockpiling ammunition. Israel’s entire defense posture is based on peace treaties with the neighbors on its longest borders — Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east. Until this year, the border with Egypt was considered so benign that large stretches of it remained unfenced. But since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Sinai Desert on the Egyptian side is a hotbed of militant Islamists beyond the reach of Cairo; on Sunday Netanyahu announced a security fence will be rushed in time for completion within a year. In the Hebrew press, talk of reducing the defense budget to fund the social justice demands of Israel’s own popular rising — last summer’s hugely successful tent city, which helped inspire the Occupy movements — is turning into talk of ramping up the conventional military to defend borders. Not that anyone expects a conflict with an angry new Egypt in the next few months; the timeline some analysts mention is from three to five years.

“We are closely monitoring the developments in Egypt. We have one interest, and that is preserving the peace treaty that has endured for 32 years,” Israeli intelligence minister Dan Meridor told the daily Ma’ariv. “What will happen after the elections? That is still before us and things continue to develop all the time.”