When the first revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt occurred, the initial responses from Israel appeared distinct from those in the West. While European and American reactions were enthusiastic, a whiff of skepticism, if not concern, could be discerned in the responses of both politicians and commentators in Israel.

The reasons were not always understood. In the West, the emergence–for the first time in Arab history–of popular mass movements threatening and eventually toppling autocratic leaders was a welcome development. It finally put the Arab region on a par with developments that had engulfed most other regions of the world–Eastern Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia–in the 1990s. In Israel, the sudden overthrow of a leader who kept peace with Israel, sometimes under difficult conditions, for 30 years, appeared as threatening the strategic and moral achievement of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s momentous move of 1977 to reach out to the Jewish state.

In other words, for the West the agenda was about democracy; for Israel, it was peace. For Europeans and Americans, achieving democracy in a country like Egypt was a vindication of an ideological belief, embedded in lofty ideals, but with little consequence for the Europeans or Americans themselves. In Israel, the issue was inextricably bound up with the daily existence of its population.

With the spread of the revolutionary wave into more Arab countries, it was clear that the comfortable cohabitation of western democracies with Arab autocratic rulers–from traditional monarchies to military-led revolutionary republics–was about to come to an end. Yet nobody is able to give a satisfactory answer about the outcome. While some European anti-Muslim knee-jerk reactions were obviously exaggerated, a legitimate set of questions was raised. Western enthusiasm might now be accompanied by the kind of skepticism that characterized the initial Israeli response.

Developments in Egypt are, on the one hand, encouraging–but also pose serious questions. With public opinion focused on investigations and possible trials for former president Hosni Mubarak, his sons and some of his ministers, it appears that vindictiveness rather than democratic consolidation is at the top of the public discourse. Elections are promised for September, but it is still unclear who the effective contenders may be: the youthful Facebook generation, so central to mobilizing enormous crowds on Tahrir Square for demonstrations, is much less capable of the hard and grinding work of building up coherent political parties. With the National Democratic Party dismantled, this leaves the Muslim Brotherhood as the only major public force, and given its widespread networks–which already proved their effectiveness in the constitutional referendum–it is difficult to see how anyone can prevent it from becoming the hegemonic power in a future structure of Egyptian politics: its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party has a good chance of attaining such a position.

This does not mean that Egypt will go the way of Iran–the differences are obvious. But the lack of a coherent, secular and liberal counterweight gives cause for legitimate concern about Egypt’s future relationship with Europe and the United States. Certainly the regional position of the United States has been weakened, regardless of what happens next in Egypt, as the emerging rapprochement of the ruling Military Council in Cairo with Iran has already indicated.

On the other hand, the ability of rulers in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria to withstand–until now–popular demonstrations suggests that the forces of democracy are still weak in many Arab countries, and the willingness of oppressive regimes to use ruthless power should not be underrated. Even NATO’s intervention in Libya does not yet guarantee the end of Gaddafi’s rule. After all, the only two regimes toppled until now–Bin Ali’s and Mubarak’s–were much less oppressive than the ones that now prove their willingness and ability to suppress their own people with little room for moral considerations. They may, unfortunately, succeed.

On a global level, it is surprising that it is European powers like France and Britain that seem to be much more willing to use force in this situation than the US. Beyond US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to use force, one fails to see a clear American strategy of how to deal with the issues involved; even the killing of Osama Bin Laden may have unforeseen consequences. Nor will pious hopes for demonstrations spreading to Iran bring down the ayatollahs. The Islamic Republic is a truly revolutionary regime, which for all its authoritarian characteristics is deeply embedded in a social vision: it is not a personal autocracy.

…It is, however, clear that Egypt will develop a much more critical approach to Israel: while popular in Egypt, this approach will not enhance the peace process. The “Arab spring” is still navigating in uncharted waters, and many surprises–some encouraging and some disappointing–may still be in store.-Published 5/5/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org