On Neglecting the People of Egypt: a Jewish Perspective on the Crisis

Tear Gas Victim on the Streets of Egypt

This is a Guest Post by Steve Hunegs, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC).
Far from Tahrir Square in Cairo, a country rich with 7,000 years of civilization, Bishop Lee Piché of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis ascended the bima of Beth El synagogue to give a d’var Torah on Parshat Mishpatim. Two generations ago, this would have been extraordinary writ small just as the unfolding events of the Hosni Mubarak regime writ large ever today.
I thanked Bishop Piché at the end of his d’var Torah – he is the titular Bishop of Tamata, in modern day Tunisia – and I spoke of our community concern for the peace and safety of all those who live in the Middle East, including, Christians who have been persecuted and tortured in the cradle of Christianity where Christians have lived since antiquity.
Bishop Piché, in his d’var Torah, highlighted the many rules of Parshat Mishpatim and the spirit of rules which acknowledge that we have a creator – in whose image we are created and whose rules protect and advance the relationships within the human community. As both Rabbi Davis and Bishop Piché pointed out, the parshah twice admonishes us to “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The Mubarak autocracy followed few rules. Indeed, if not slavery, it cultivated dispossession among scores of millions of Egyptians – particularly young people – and robbed them of their dignity. And then the reckoning came. And in the words of Fouad Ajami interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio (1/30/11), the House of Pharoah fell as it “lost its mandate from heaven,” to paraphrase the Chinese.
Parshat Mishpatim ends with dramatic expectation as Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to await the giving of the laws. Eighty million Egyptians await their new government. At Mt. Sinai the Jewish people began their recorded history and advanced their future. In Cairo and the 386,659 square miles of Egypt, the long history of Egypt awaits its future.
Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has promulgated a proposed statement of United States policy interest towards Egypt. (Satloff, incidentally, has written a book “Among the Righteous”, in which he chronicles his successful quest to find Muslims who helped save Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust.)
Satloff writes of the need for the United States to support a transition to an Egyptian government that demonstrates its commitment through word and deed to:

  • freedom of speech, assembly, thought, religion, free press and the confronting of extremism;
  • practicing democratic norms and practices;
  • respecting rules of law and justice;
  • fulfill its international commitments including freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal and peace with Israel.

Sadly, we are guilty of long ignoring the dignity of Egypt and its people to the extent that we need to rub our eyes and remember how we have forgotten to connect Satloff’s cardinal points to the people of Egypt. (Perhaps this is the reason Mishpatim speaks twice of remembering bondage in Egypt.)
This is not the first time we have neglected the people of Egypt, to our peril. Israel, in 1967, quite rightly launched a preemptive attack against Egypt as Nasser created a casus belli by closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and threatening to destroy Israel in league with Syria. This followed years of nationalistic bellicosity by Nasser towards Israel which included the importation of Nazi scientists to develop missiles of sufficient range to destroy Israeli cities. Israel destroyed Egypt’s air force in the first hours of the Six Day War, vanquished its army and captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip.
Israel, after the Khartoum Declaration of September 1, 1967, in which the Arab countries rebuffed Israel’s peace attempts, grew increasingly haughty towards Egypt’s armed forces and disparaging towards its people.
At the Yom Kippur War, Egypt crossed the Suez Canal, gained a significant foothold and struck Israel a considerable blow with the aid of Soviet SAM batteries and wire guided anti-tank missiles. Ultimately, the Egyptians lost their upper hand as the Israelis crossed the Suez Canal behind the Egyptian lines and trapped the Egyptian Third Army.
Their positions intertwined through the Sinai and Egypt proper, the Israelis and Egyptians were forced to deal with each other directly, for the first time, and with dignity. All of this is described in Abraham Rabinovich’s outstanding “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East.”
The disengagement of the Israeli and Egyptian forces, according to Rabinovich, precipitated the creation of an atmosphere in which Anwar Sadat ascended to Jerusalem in November, 1977. Four and a half years later, Israel withdrew from the Sinai as part of a peace treaty with Egypt.
The Israel-Egypt peace treaty became the fulcrum of U.S. policy between Israel and the Arab states. It was a proving ground for the concept of land for peace. Large scale United States foreign aid to Egypt (about a billion dollars each year) also undergirded the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Monday’s news of the United States and European nations supporting Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman and his promise of an “orderly transition” is welcome news for Egypt’s stability and future.  He is considered an important ally of the United States with a long record as an interlocutor with Israeli/Palestinian issues as the head of Egypt’s Intelligence service.  He fought in two wars against Israel, but supports Egypt’s peace with Israel.
Peace between Israel and Egypt—albeit a cold peace—was a rare theater of relative stability in the Middle East. American patronage of Israel and Egypt significantly reduced Soviet influence in Egypt, the leader of the Arab world in the 1970s. Economic ties between the nations allows Israel to import 50% of its natural gas from Egypt (“Israel Shaken as Turbulence Rocks an Ally”, New York Times, January 30, 2011) and the cold peace lessens Israel’s security concerns about its Egyptian border. Since the 1970s, Israel’s defense spending, as a percentage of its GNP, has decreased from 23% to 9%.
A price paid for suborning the Mubarak autocracy and its commitment to non-belligerency with Israel has been to the financial and political deprivation of the Egyptian people. As with February, 1917, in Petrograd or June, 2009, in Tehran the people—particularly young people—have taken to the streets to demand regime change.   (Please read Charles M. Blow’s column from The New York Times published Feb. 4, in which he gives a statistical breakdown of the conditions that make a country prime for a revolution.)
Autocracies rarely have succession plans (Syria being an exception). So when regimes fall, the options are often not appealing. For example, the February 1, 2011, the Daily Alert of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs notes the following stories:

  • The Obama Administration supports for the first time a role for the Muslim Brotherhood in a reformed Egyptian government (Los Angeles Times); (the slogan for the Muslim Brotherhood is: “Islam is the solution”)
  • Coptic Christians are worried about their future without Mubarak (Wall Street Journal);
  • The editor of Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo believe the secularists leading the revolution are anti-Israel as are the socialists and all of the left in Egypt (VOA News)

Equally worrisome are the potential consequences of the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in a future Egyptian government.  “After President Mubarak steps down and a provisional government is formed, there is a need to dissolve the peace treaty with Israel,” Rashad al-Bayoumi, a deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told a Japanese television station, according to a report in The Washington Times (“Muslim Brotherhood threatens to cancel peace with Israel,” JTA, February 4, 2011).
Some wonder if the Egyptian revolution will follow in the footsteps of the Iranian revolution. Separated by a generation, culture, geography, and ethnicity, there may be significant similarities between Cairo, 2011, and Tehran, 1979, among these significant differences.
An Iranian American and friend who is Muslim witnessed the fall of the Shah in Tehran in 1979 as a 15 year old who attended the street demonstrations. He sees some parallels:

  • Both revolutions have involved people taking to the streets—especially young people—after many years of authoritarian rule;
  • Both fallen governments were heavily supported by the United States with connections between the respective militaries;
  • Both revolutions—at least to date—erected a power vacuum with no clear leadership to fill.

My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalls that Ayatollah Khomeini had a niche of support in the mosques of Tehran reinforced by cassette tapes made by Khomeini in exile in Iraq and Paris which generated passionate support for Khomeini.
My friend hopes the secularist spirit purportedly leading the Egyptian revolution has learned the lesson of allowing a theocratic impulse to gain a foothold during regime change.
As importantly, though, here we learned a lesson about a government – no matter the influence of its strategic relationship to the United States – which degrades its own people. Bishop Piché, in his d’var Torah mentioned he was greatly moved by a “beautiful summary” in the Atz Chaim Torah commentary: “The decency of a society is measured by how it cares for its least powerful members.”
(Photo: Al Jazeera)