The Arab Spring: Hello or Goodbye to Democracy?

Israeli democracy fades to black” (the black of the blank screen at the end of a film). That was the headline over a recent article by Lawrence Davidson, an American professor of Middle East history. He argued that the suppression of the democratic rights of non-Jews in Israel is coming full circle with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likudniks and settlers now targeting the rights of Jews as well. Events in Cairo provoked this question: Are we witnessing the fading to black of the prospects for freedom and democracy in Egypt, or, is resurgent people power going to make it impossible for the military to maintain its controlling grip? (Presumably there would be limits to how many Egyptian civilians Egyptian soldiers were prepared to kill even if the generals, desperate to protect their wealth and privileges, ordered the suppression by all means of protests and demands for real democracy).

Events still to unfold will determine the answer but in advance of them, and before Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi demonstrated a degree of panic by announcing that the election of a civilian president would be brought forward, the assessment of many informed observers was in tune with that of Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She wrote: “In the early days of the Egyptian uprising, when violence threatened to engulf the country, the military did an admirable job of maintaining order without violence and easing Hosni Mubarak out of office. Ten months later, it has emerged as the most serious threat in the transition to democracy. Recent announcements leave no doubt that the military indeed rules Egypt and intends to maintain its control indefinitely.”

The best indicator of whether or not Eygpt’s generals will eventually bow to people power and let democracy have its way will be in their final decision about dropping or not their proposal that new constitutional principles should preserve special powers for the military after the handover to civilian rule. These special powers as originally proposed would give the military a veto over a new constitution and prevent scrutiny of its vast budget. In other words, these “supra-constitutional” principles would enshrine the military’s right to intervene in civilian politics at any time of its choosing.

If Egypt’s generals do seek to control the democratic process by (among other things) fixing elections as Mubarak did, they will back their actions with the assertion that they must do whatever is necessary to prevent radical Islam taking over the country. That would put them on the same page as Zionism’s propaganda maestros. In a recent article for Ha’aretz, Moshe Arens, a former Israeli Minister of Defence and Foreign Minister, wrote the following.

A wave of Islamic rule, with all it entails, is sweeping across the Arab world. It will replace secular dictatorships with Islamic ones. We should have expected nothing else… Observers may fool themselves into believing that the Islamic parties contesting the elections in the Arab countries are ‘mildly’ Islamic, or ‘moderate’ Islamists, but their leaders are neither mild nor moderate.

The unstated but implicit Zionist message Arens is conveying is that the Arab Spring will create more and more states that will become safe havens for Islamic terrorists, and that Israel and the West, America especially, will have to pursue the “war against terrorism” on many more fronts with even greater vigour and escalating expense.

What the overwhelming majority of all Arabs want is an end to corrupt, repressive, autocratic rule. In reality there is no prospect of Muslims who preach the need for violence and practise it calling the shots if democracy is allowed to take root and grow in the Arab world. In Egypt for example, and whatever it may or may not have been in the past, the Muslim Brotherhood is the process of transforming itself, now in the guise of the Freedom and Justice Party, into a modern and progressive political force which truly wants to see Egypt governed by democratic means for the benefit of all and not just a privileged elite. The only thing that could drive a significant number of Egyptians into supporting violent Islamic fundamentalism is never-ending military suppression of their demands for freedom and democracy. (If this were to happen one could say that like George “Dubya” Bush and Tony Blair, Egypt’s generals had become recruiting sergeants for violent Islamic fundamentalism).

In my analysis Arens’ prediction of what will happen in the Arab world is a cover for the real fear of Zionism’s in-Israel and in-America leaders. It is that democracy could or even will take root in the Arab world or at least major chunks of it. Why such a prospect alarms Zionism is not complicated.

Democratically elected Arab governments would have to be reflect the will of their masses, the voters. On the matter of the conflict in and over Palestine that became Israel, what is the will of the Arab masses? In their heads if not always their hearts it is not for military confrontation with Israel. It is that their governments be united enough use the leverage they have on America, to cause it to use the leverage it has on Israel, to cause or try to cause enough Israeli Jews to face reality and insist that their leaders make peace on terms which would satisfy the demands and needs of the Palestinians for justice, while at the same time guaranteeing the security and wellbeing of Jews now resident in Palestine that became Israel.

The leverage the Arab world has is in the form of oil, money and diplomatic relations.

For an example of how this Arab leverage could have been used to good effect in the past I’ll turn the clock back to 1967. Now let us suppose that in the weeks following the Six Days War the Arab leaders put their act together and sent one of their number secretly to Washington to deliver this message to President Johnson: “If you don’t get the Israelis back to the pre-war borders, we’ll turn off the oil taps.” (That is how Zionism’s in-Israel leaders would have played the oil card if the boot had been on the other foot, if they had been in the Arab position).

How would Johnson (or any other occupant of the White House) have responded?

If he believed the Arab leaders were united and serious, not bluffing, he would have said something very like the following: “I can’t promise quick action on East Jerusalem but otherwise give me three weeks and I’ll do it.”

In short, the Arabs would not have had to turn off the oil taps. A credible threat to do so would have been enough to motivate Johnson (or any other American president) to use all necessary leverage to bring Israel’s occupation to a quick end.

That’s how the game of political leverage is played.

A real hello to democracy in the Arab world or at least significant chunks of it, and Egypt especially, would be very bad news for Zionism.

Netanyahu is fully aware of this and is escalating his anti Arab Spring rhetoric. In his latest speech to the Knesset he blasted Israeli and world politicians who support the demands for change in the Arab world and accused it of “moving not forward, but backward.” He asserted that his original forecast that the Arab Spring would turn into an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave” had turned out to be true.

In his report for Ha’aretz, Barak Ravid wrote: “The speech showed an expressed lack of trust in Arab nations’ ability to maintain a democratic regime; a yearning to go back to the days of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; a fear of the collapse of the Hashemite royal house in Jordan, and an utter lack of willingness to make any concessions to the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu also slammed those Western leaders, Obama especially, who had pressed Egypt’s generals to tell Mubarak to go. At the time that was happening, Ravid revealed, Netanyahu said in closed talks that the American administration and many European leaders “don’t understand reality”. In his last speech he called them “naive”.

I used to wonder if Netanyahu really believes the nonsense he talks. I am now convinced that he does.

The the latest development in Cairo, the apology by two of the generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are making me wonder if the coming days will see the removal of Field Marshall Tantawi, which is what the protestors in Tahrir Square are demanding. The two generals not only apologized for the deaths of protestors, they said, according to the BBC report I heard, “We do not aspire to power and we do not want to continue in power.”

If those words can be taken at face value, they suggest to me that a majority of Tantawi’s SCAF colleagues have realised that continuing in power, even behind the scenes, would require them at a point to give orders to the army to shoot to kill large numbers of Egyptians, orders which would not be obeyed by the lower ranks and foot soldiers.

If that is the case, Tantawi’s departure would indicate that it is the prospects for a real hello to democracy in Egypt are improving. And if something approaching real democracy [Mr. Hart's definition of "real democracy" -- Ed.] can take root and grow in Egypt, the days of Arab autocrats and despots almost everywhere (probably not Saudi Arabia) may well be numbered.

Alan Hart has been engaged with events in the Middle East and globally as a researcher, author, and a correspondent for ITN and the BBC. Read other articles by Alan, or visit Alan's website.