Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Arab Spring and us

The term "Arab Spring" was inspired by the historic 1848 events known as the “Spring of Nations". When it became known throughout Europe that in Paris the monarchy was overthrown and a republic established, the masses in many different countries took to the streets to make their own revolutions. Some were oppressed peoples suffering under foreign rule, others lived under Kings and tyrannical rulers of their own nationality. In some places there were relatively peaceful revolutions, others burst into bloody civil wars and the intervention of foreign powers.

Most of the 1848 revolutions in Europe ended in failure and frustration. In some cases the former rulers were able to maintain their rule by force. In other places, where the people got to choose their representatives, manifestly unfit people got to power and brought their countries low. But despite all, in historical perspective there is no doubt that these revolutions sowed the seed of present day democratic Europe.

The chain of events known as the Arab Spring began with a young Tunisian named Mohammed Boazizi, who set himself on fire to protest a personal act of injustice. He did not live to see that how his death sparked protests which led to the overthrow of tyranny in his native Tunisia and quickly spread to other countries.

The fall of the regime in Tunis did not arouse too much of an interest in Israel. Most Israelis never heard of the dictator Ben Ali until the day he boarded a plane and fled. Egypt was quite another matter. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square two years ago made headlines in the Israeli press, displacing our own politics. Israelis watched the developing drama with bated breath and a clear and evident sympathy, up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian bloggers were amazed to hear how deeply many Israelis were interested in and sympathetic to their struggle. The struggle in the city squares of Cairo also affected directly the social protest movement that arose a few months later in the streets of Israeli cities. In the protest tent encampment on Rothschild Boulevard, there were signs and stickers such as "From Kiryat Shmona to Cairo - The People Demand Social Justice" "Corner of Rothschild and Tahrir" and "With Prices Going Sky-High, We Will Struggle Like in Egypt” (this rhymes in Hebrew).

But the honeymoon did not last long. With the increasing signs that free elections in Egypt would be won by Islamist parties and factions, Israeli  enthusiasm for democracy in Egypt noticeably cooled. Writer Amos Oz seems to have been the first to utter the phrase "It's not an Arab Spring, but an Islamist Winter" which at record speed became the most outworn of the cliches used by Israeli commentators and editorial writers.

Meanwhile, Libya got to the headlines for a time. In general Israelis tended to support the decision of the NATO countries to intervene in the war and provide the Libyan rebels with air support, and eventually topple Moammar Gadhafi from the heights of power to a despicable death in a sewer pipe. On the other hand, there was very little interest over here in the brutal suppression of the democratic protest movement focused on Bahrain’ Pearl Intersection, a suppression carried out with the tacit consent of the same NATO countries. To the extent that Bahrain got any mention, the Israeli branded Bahrain Shiite protesters as "pro-Iranian", which by definition made their swift suppression into an Israeli interest.

Attention quickly moved to Syria and the brutal war which developed there. To begin with, many Israelis naturally sympathized with the protesters in the squares of the Syrian cities, who encountered very brutal repression. Netanyahu and his government soon seized their chance and rushed to very loudly condemn the repression in Syria - and note with satisfaction that the   Syrian army’s murderous violence against the citizens of its own country was much worse than the acts of the Israeli Defense Forces in the Palestinian territories. When international Human Rights activists sought to reach the shores of besieged Gaza, each and every one of them got in their detention cells a copy of a personal letter from the Prime Minister of Israel, which  directed them to turn to Syria and forget about Israeli settlements or the siege on Gaza.

Gradually, as the weight of global Jihad activists among the Syrian rebels increased, sympathy for the rebels was replaced by regarding them as a threat to Israel, one of the many threats for which we must remain ever vigilant, and the right-wingers triumphantly reiterated the argument "how good that we did not make peace with Syria and give back the Golan Heights." And when news websites published items of Syrian civil war horrors, anonymous commentators used the talkback section to comment: ”Let them go on killing each other”.

The spread of the Arab Spring from one country to another revived among a certain section of political right-wing the old hope that a fall of the Hashemite Dynasty in Jordan would provide the Palestinians with a substitute  statehood, so that Israel could retain the Palestinian territories west of the Jordan River. But amidst the regional turbulence the throne of King Abdullah II in Amman seemed to shake much less than those of other rulers. Moreover, such challenges to his rule which did appear came especially from non-Palestinian Jordanians. Nevertheless, right-wing circles in Israel have not lost hope for a Jordanian Spring taking up the slogan "Jordan is Palestine", and not a week goes by without an article expressing such hopes appearing in one of their publications.

In the meantime – back to Egypt. The elections resulted in the fulfillment of what had been presented as the nightmare scenario: Mursi became Egypt's first democratically elected President and the Muslim Brotherhood became the ruling party. To the surprise of many here, the sky did not really fall. The peace treaty with Israel was not canceled, and President Morsi played a key role in achieving a cease-fire an Gaza in November 2012, ending the fighting after the number of those killed reached "only" one-tenth of the number killed in the   January 2009 round. This was followed by President Morsi making an effort to help maintain the ceasefire on the Gaza border and authorizing the Egyptian army to take energetic action against the smuggling tunnels at Rafah - more than it did in the time of Mubarak. All of which did not add to the popularity of Morsi in Egypt itself, and in the militant demonstrations his photo was integrated into a huge Israeli flag, appearing right in the center of the Star of David. Yet in Israel he never gained any real popularity.

For a long time, we have not heard so much about happenings in Egypt. Israeli media did report Morsi's decision last year to dissolve the ruling military council and of the momentary support given to this move by the liberal and secular opposition. But then the media seemed to lose interest in the nuances and complexities of Egyptian politics - the belligerent steps increasingly adopted by Morsi to consolidate his rule and the increasing opposition to that rule and the escalating crisis in the Egyptian economy and the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to implement campaign promises to their voters (in which, it must be noted in fairness, they were far from the only ones among the world’s elected governments).

Until last week, when Egypt was once in the focus. It seemed a replay of the scenario of two years ago – once again the huge demonstrations in Tahrir Square capturing the Israeli headlines and driving out our local news, once again expressions of joy at the fall of another Egyptian President. And at the weekly demonstration by social protest activists outside the home of the Minister of Finance appeared a big sign: "Morsi, Bibi, Lapid – the Same Revolution!”.

Most Israeli commentators felt no more than a slight unease at the fact that a President elected in free elections had been ousted by the Egyptian army. The respected Hemi Shalev on the pages of Haaretz actually questioned whether  democracy should always be the preferred system of government, and the well-known Ben Kaspit went into a paroxysm of joy at the thought that "The Islamists with their galabiya robes had been thrown into the trash can”. But according to the most recent news coming out of Egypt, they are not in the trash but out in the streets. They seem far from resigned to being ousted from the power to which they had been elected, and the death toll continues to rise.

So how will our media report on the following installments of the Egyptian saga?