Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt's Turmoil Sermon

Our Torah portion begins with the words, “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The Torah’s intention seems clear. The Tabernacle could only be built if the people were moved to participate. Later we will read that the people’s hearts were joined together in this effort—and it was only because of this that they succeeded.

This brings me to my question for the evening, the question of the turmoil in Egypt. Are the people indeed joined together? Ok, perhaps the connection to the Torah portion is thin but I promised that I would about what is happening in Egypt so here it goes. Let me make a few observations and then open it up for discussion.

Years ago when on a rabbinic mission to Israel I met with Dr. Yuval Steinmetz. He is currently the finance minister and a Knesset member from Likud. He made dire warnings about Egypt. He observed that there was a great deal of saber rattling emanating from Egypt and that Egypt was increasing its ground forces. I dismissed his warnings, thinking that it does not matter because Israel has a peace treaty with Egypt.

Israel’s papers reported recently (2008) that a Gallup poll of Egyptians showed that 60% favored instituting Sharia (Islamic law). 80% of women there undergo female circumcision. Moreover the Muslim Brotherhood represents the beginnings of jihadist Islam. It began in the 1920’s. It had strong ties to the Nazis, and continues to dispense antisemitic tracts. The Muslim Brotherhood rejects the peace treaty with Israel. To be sure the group seems to be moving away from violence but I have great worries about its intentions.

It is of course still unclear what is going to happen. We only know that at present there is great instability in the region. In addition to Egypt we just witnessed Tunisia’s jasmine revolution. Yemen is now also convulsing and Yemen is crucial to the US efforts to fight radical Islam. Jordan is now also teetering. A Jordanian descent into chaos could prove even more worrisome for Israel.

So let me make a few observations. If these events are indeed a march to democracy it will be remarkable that it was brought about by the information age and technology rather than by making wars, as we attempted in Iraq in Afghanistan. This is why I so admired Google when it pulled out of China. The company stood by its principles that information should lead to freedoms and can do good (or at least do no harm, as Google would say). But technology can also be used to hunt down these same protesters as Iran has systematically done over the past year.

Still I remain skeptical that we are seeing democracy unfold in Egypt. Perhaps we will see greater freedoms emerge there, but not sweeping democratic reforms. I share the goal of bringing democracy to the world, but I am constantly reminded that the Middle East has remained inhospitable to such reforms.

The protests in Iran led nowhere—except now to the arrests of the protesters. I believe the Obama administration failed these protesters in not speaking more forcefully in their behalf. I continue to wonder why this administration speaks for protesters against an ally, but did not speak for protesters against an enemy. (I do sometimes see things in simplistic and stark ways.) I also still wonder how Obama could offer such little criticism of Egyptian government when in Cairo. Yes, he did speak for democracy and against the suppression of freedoms, but he did not single out the Mubarak government for criticism, except in reference to the Copts. It makes you doubt how much faith the protesters have in the US.

Lebanon’s cedar revolution that brought democratic reforms to that country has ultimately led to Hezbollah gaining power. Similarly the Bush administration’s support for elections in Gaza brought Hamas to power.

It is quite the moral quandary. I believe in democracy. But time and again it has brought our enemies to power in the Middle East.

Now to Israel. Today I participated in a conference call with Dr. Kenneth Stein of Emory University. The call was sponsored by AIPAC. He made two important observations. It is in Egypt’s interest to maintain peace agreement with Israel. It is a strategic benefit. It might never be a warm peace but the peace treaty will hold. I certainly hope he is right! None of the protesters have said that their protests are about Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Stein continued, the protests are first and foremost about jobs and food. They are really not even about democracy. Here are a few statistics. The majority of Egyptians live in poverty, living on $2 per day. 700,000 students graduate from Egyptian colleges every year. Only 200,000 new jobs are created every year. 35% of Egyptians are illiterate (out of a population of 80 million).

Israel is understandably nervous. This is what they are talking about there, in the Israeli press. Since the Egyptian peace accords Israel has not fought a conventional war. All of the recent conflicts have been asymmetrical. To adjust its military planning to face a large Egyptian army (now supplied with US military hardware) could alter modern Israel.
Because of the peace treaty Israel has reduced its military spending and lowered the age for reservists. Even adding discussions about the possibility of a conventional war with Egypt would be a terrible psychological blow to Israel and Israelis.

Israeli armaments travel through the Suez canal. In addition 3% of the world’s oil travels through Egypt. The majority of Israel’s natural gas is imported from Egypt. Also many commentators have noted how quickly US apparently turned on its ally. This has also caused a great deal of nervousness.

It is unclear what these current protests will lead to. If they lead to more representative government and less human rights abuses wonderful. If they also lead to greater empowerment of Israel’s and America’s enemies then this month will mark the day that we returned to the problems of the 1970’s.

There is of course little we can do. And Israeli especially and even America should at the moment sit on the sidelines. All we can do is wait, wonder and of course pray. I will always pray that all can enjoy the freedoms of democracy. And I will also do what little I can to make sure that our allies are guaranteed their security, most especially my beloved Israel.

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