New Middle East has rough birth
No one knows for sure if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will stay in power until September (as he hopes) or until tomorrow (as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the streets demand).
This much we do know: A new Middle East is taking shape, which is not necessarily something the Jewish world should fear.
But violent forces can still hijack this revolution, which for days seemed surprisingly peaceful. Pro- and anti-Mubarak forces clashed Wednesday in Cairo, with apparently no attempt by the army to intervene. Whip-brandishing protesters rode horses and camels into the crowds while the two sides pelted each other with rocks.
Now, Human Rights Watch is reporting that undercover Egyptian secret police are committing acts of looting and vandalism to foment fear and instability.
Such uncertainty in a country so close to Israel, one that has kept a cold peace with the Jewish state, is definitely cause for concern. But if the Egyptian people can keep control of the situation, then this tide of change sweeping their country — and Tunisia, and Jordan — may ultimately be good for Israel as well.
First, unlike the Iranian Revolution, this is not a fundamentalist uprising. It’s an economic one. The people in the streets are young men and women — many of whom are educated and skilled — who see no future in their homelands.
Egypt, for example, had GDP growth of more than $188 billion in 2009 and a not-so-shocking unemployment rate of 9.4 percent. But nearly half of all Egyptians live at or below the United Nations-set poverty line — $2 a day. Clearly, too many Egyptians have not shared in the growth their country has experienced for more than 25 years.
The economic outlook is also dismal in Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Jordan.
Second, for its entire existence, Israel has had to deal with despotic regimes (with the exception of Jordan, but the king is still a powerful ruler). How different could the politics of the region have been were they instead democratically elected governments?
Next, we haven’t seen any charismatic imams speaking through bullhorns to thousands of fanatical followers in the street scenes beamed to us from Tunis, Cairo, Suez and Amman. Are they there? For sure. Will they win? Well, they can’t offer what the people apparently want — prosperity.
Lastly, do these demonstrators like Israel? OK, there’s a lot of pent-up hostility toward the Jewish state; that hasn’t changed. But these revolts aren’t about us. At the end of the day, when the cameras stop rolling, and the reporters go home, the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan want the same quality of life most Israelis enjoy. Could it be they want a better life more than they hate us?
It’s not impossible.
So, the new Middle East is having a rough birth. The presence of plainclothes police among the demonstrators is reminiscent of Iran during its Green Revolution, and things could still go terribly wrong. But if they don’t, then these popular uprisings in these countries can have benefits far beyond their borders.