By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The upheaval in Egypt has grabbed the attention of people worldwide. In every country across the globe, people are discussing the revolution that toppled the autocratic leader of a 30-year regime and sent him into hiding.
What is remarkable about the uprising that unseated Hosni Mubarak in the most populous Arab country is that the opposition had no apparent leader. It seemed as if the street protesters were created by spontaneous generation, seemingly materializing from nowhere. After 18 days of unrest, the target of popular hatred was driven from power. He fled the scene, handing victory to the ecstatic masses.
Long considered one of the strongest Arab leaders, admired by America, Israel and secure countries in the Mideast, Mubarak’s downfall came with shocking suddenness. The relationships he had built over the decades were of no use in his hour of crisis. His many political friends just stood by and watched as the house of cards on the Nile collapsed.
The White House fumbled embarrassingly as it tried to stay on top of Egypt’s seesawing political situation. Intent on coming out on the winning side, the Obama administration allowed its official stance to be governed by the rapidly changing political winds.
Each day’s official statements contradicted those of the previous day, as senior administration officials dithered about, trying to read the future. One day Mubarak was described by White House spokesmen as “a strong ally” in a neighborhood where America has very few friends. The next day he was told to move aside to make way for the next government of Egypt. The White House’s indecision and vacillation invited ridicule from friends and enemies alike.
Popularity With Egyptian Youth Trumps American Interests
As media reports gathered steam and portrayed Mubarak’s departure as inevitable, President Barack Obama and his advisers became obsessed with public opinion on the Egyptian street. What would Egypt’s revolutionary youth think of the American president if he did not throw his support behind them? The White House’s driving concern appeared to no longer be over which steps America should take to bolster its strategic interests. Nor was it about how the world would view the United States. Incredibly, the key issue Obama and his advisors fixated upon became how the ranks of young protesters in Egypt would judge the American president.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department, to their credit, pushed back and sought to move ahead cautiously. They attempted to walk a careful line between calling for a peaceful transition to a more democratic form of government, while at the same time remaining loyal to a longtime political ally. In the face of growing concern in the region about a powerful vacuum in Egypt should Mubarak step down, U.S. officials reassured America’s allies – Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – that America could be counted on to stand by its friends.
But, on the contrary, according to the New York Times, President Obama was determined to be “in total sync with the protesters” and feared “[revealing] that the United States was… putting its own interests first.”
That is not the Yated talking. It is the New York Times, which also reported that “The diplomats at the State Department view the Egyptian crisis through the lens of American strategic interests in the region, its threat to the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel, and its effects on the Middle East peace process.”
The Times continued: “The White House shared those concerns, officials said, but workers in the West Wing also worried that if Mr. Obama did not encourage the young people in the streets with forceful, even inspiring language, he would be accused of abandoning the ideals he expressed in his 2009 speech in Cairo.”
For those who are apprehensive that Obama’s foreign policy is weakening America, his exaggerated concern with Egyptian public opinion to the neglect of America’s strategic interests does little to allay those concerns.
A country in which all freedom of expression has long been suppressed would naturally lack the leadership necessary to coordinate serious opposition to the regime. Democracy cannot evolve overnight, nor can it flourish in a political vacuum. No matter how desperately people in an autocracy hunger for political freedom, unless the institutions necessary to create a democratic government are in place, the autocrat’s departure can produce chaos. It can pave the way for power-hungry, ruthless people to seize the reins of government.
A transition to democracy requires the formation of political parties, the grooming of candidates, the creation of a political infrastructure, and a free press with the ability to introduce the candidates and their positions to the public. People have to be given time to form opinions and to be educated on how to vote. The constitution and laws of the country must be amended to allow for free and honest elections to take place.
Today, the only organized political group in the country is the radical Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928 and still bent on its mission of turning the entire Middle East into Islamic republics. Allied with Hitler during World War II, they retain their radical platform and have been working quietly and patiently in pursuit of their goals. Were an election to be held in Egypt now, the Brotherhood would likely cause a tidal shift in Egypt’s relationship with the world.
All the treaties and policies that governed Egyptian behavior during the past decades were signed and formulated by dictators who were answerable to no one and, as such, will not obligate the next government in any way. Agreements signed by Mubarak and his predecessors may be tossed out by the next Egyptian ruler.
Thus, Egypt’s political upheaval promises serious ramifications for America and Israel. The strategic interests of those two countries are heavily tied to the 1979 peace accords between Israel and Egypt that were signed in Camp David. Will that peace treaty hold up under a new government? Already, Ayman Nour, the man who came in second behind Mubarak in the most recent 2005 presidential election, said that the Camp David era is now over and that he believes Egypt should rethink the peace deal.
Feeding The Monster
Peace and stability in the world depend upon leaders who can correctly assess the strengths and weaknesses of other nations, friendly ones as well as hostile governments. Leaders must be able to distinguish between the two. Adopting an enemy group as a friend because it postures and makes politically correct statements is an act of tunnel vision and dangerous naiveté. Allowing that enemy group to enjoy any kind of power is a vital mistake.
A leader who can first recognize and then, through the cover of a democratic election, empower a group such as the Muslim Brotherhood because they mouthed democratic expressions demonstrates a lack of comprehension as to the nature and aims of that group, which has spent decades seeking to engineer the very revolution which took place last week.
Followers of that same philosophy – a philosophy of make peace with your enemies, recognize terrorists and then accept them at their word that they have embraced democracy – advise Israel to cut a deal now with the Palestinians. The irony is overwhelming. Especially now, as it becomes evident once again that deals cut with tyrants can go up in smoke in a flash. Especially now, as dictators, shaken by recent events, worry about being overthrown, why would Israel be so foolish as to negotiate its existence with a group of terrorists who happen to hold power today but do not represent any part of the population?
Should Egypt fall now in the Iranian column, the change of regime will prove disastrous for America, Israel and the West. Even the more moderate Arab countries are fearful. If radical Islamists score a victory in Egypt, the domino effect will be felt quickly in Jordon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and by other allies in the war against al-Qaeda and terror.
Doomed To Repeat History?
For now, the Egyptian army is firmly in charge of the country, but for enlightenment about what may lie ahead for Egypt, turn back the pages of Iran’s contemporary history. Three decades ago, there was jubilation in Iranian cities, similar to the ecstasy that erupted in Egypt over Mubarak’s departure. The Iranian masses, hungering for democracy, brought a 2,000-year-old monarchy to a crashing end. President Jimmy Carter and much of the world rejoiced with the Iranians who pulled off a democratic revolution.
Yet, the leaders who grabbed the reins of power from the Shah of Iran, a staunch American ally, could not hold on. Ayatollah Khomeini swept them from power, removing them and all they stood for. Today, a dangerous regime on the verge of going nuclear threatens the free world. That is what remains of the democratic revolution that, with American help, overthrew the Shah of Iran.
And now, once again, in a move which can very well contravene American interests, we had an American president pushing an ally out the door, because of his overriding concern about his image among protesters in a far-away land. How strange is that? Is it not outrageous that the leader of the strongest country in the free world would set policy and engage in actions detrimental to his country due to the hunger for adulation from street revolutionaries in far-off Egypt? He doesn’t know who is controlling them. He doesn’t know who will lead them. He doesn’t know if a responsible, legitimate democratic figure can emerge from the mess. He doesn’t try to reduce the tension until a proper election can be held. Yet, he gets caught up in the utopian fervor shouting for freedom.
We read the news hoping to gain an understanding of how the world works. Viewing current events through the prism of history ought to help us in that effort. We wonder how this country’s leader can ignore the past and why he is unable to draw the most elementary conclusions.
How could America have forgotten the results of the democratic revolution it helped shepherd in Iran? How could people have forgotten how the election that the United States helped force through in Gaza impacted Israel, America and the world in general?
We watch events unfolding and fail to understand. America has an obligation to itself and its allies and those who have faithfully stood by them, helping to battle terror and evil in a dangerous world.
We wonder why the Obama administration didn’t try to steer a transition to democratic change and aid in the proper development of a political culture in Egypt. This would have provided a fighting chance to the emergence of a democracy that would be loyal to the goals of democratic countries the world over, without falling prey to the dangerous power vacuum it is now trying to navigate.
We watched the people of Iran revolt against their brutal dictatorship and desperately wait for American support, which never came. We wonder why the White House bully pulpit which was exercised against Mubarak, was not, and is not, utilized to sustain the Iranian freedom fighters as well.
Trying To Connect The Dots
The Gemara in Maseches Chulin (139a) states that a hint to Queen Esther can be found in the Torah in the words, “Ve’anochi hasteir astir es Ponai bayom hahu.” Hashem foretells that He will hide himself on that [future] day. The words “hasteir astir” are commonly understood as more than a play on words. They are an acknowledgment that the Hand of Hashem, during the saga of Queen Esther, was hidden. The neis was nislabeish in tevah. The miracle was disguised by seemingly natural events.
One who read the newspapers in those days did not recognize that a Divine plan was unfolding. They read about Achashveirosh’s party and about Queen Vashti, including her tail and death sentence. Those headlines were followed first by the political advancement of Haman and then his plan to rid the kingdom of Jews. It all made for fascinating reading. Some, no doubt, wondered at the strangeness and unpredictability of the king having his wife killed, or Haman being catapulted to power, or the Jews being singled out for destruction. Most people, though, probably went about their daily lives without trying to connect the dots.
It was only when Mordechai and Esther alerted the Jews to Haman’s diabolical plot, calling on them to fast and repent, that they began to recognize that the seemingly random events were part of a Divine plan, which they could influence through their actions. And it wasn’t until all parts of the story came together that everyone recognized that Hashem had all along been pulling the strings from behind the scenes.
Chazal teach that all the holidays will be annulled after the coming of Moshiach, except for the holiday of Purim. Perhaps this is because the miracle of Purim came about due to the unified teshuvah of the entire Jewish people. The Jews sinned at the seudah of Achashveirosh and a decree of destruction was issued against them in Shomayim. After they repented and reaccepted the yoke of Torah, Hakadosh Boruch Hu spared them.
This ability of the Jews to guide their own destiny through teshuvah is eternal. Thus, the posuk says in the Megillah, “Vehayomim ha’eilu nizkorim venaasim.” These days of Purim and the ability to achieve what the Jews accomplished at this time will always be remembered. Not only will they be remembered, the posuk says, but “venaasim,” they will be done. Because, for all eternity, when Jews are threatened with destruction, they will be able to repeat what their forefathers did during the period of the neis of Purim and achieve their salvation.
In our day, when we witness bizarre events clothed in seemingly natural developments, it is a tip-off to the Divine Hand guiding events. Inexperienced people unsuited for high office manage to attain power in the strongest country in the world. Entrenched tyrants are swept from power in a matter of days. We are confronted with the prospect of a sudden realignment in the balance of power that has for decades held sway in the Middle East. All of these happenings whisper to us that there is an invisible Hand guiding the forces of history.
The posuk in Yeshayahu (ibid. 30:7) states, “UMitzrayim hevel varik yazor – Egypt does not help.” The Malbim explains that for all time, Mitzrayim never helped any nation that depended upon it. Perhaps, if we learn a lesson from what has transpired there now, they will have helped us this one time.
We must recognize that it is not this or that leader who controls our destiny, nor is it political brinkmanship that dictates the rise and fall of world leaders. Because we live in a period of hester ponim, brought on by our sins, we have to be able to look beyond the headlines and recognize Hashem’s guiding Hand in the strange patchwork of world events. We must try to see in this bewildering landscape the potential for the stirrings of the guelah, if we but make ourselves worthy.
We say in Shoshanas Yaakov, “Teshu’osom hayisah lanetzach – You, Hashem, were the salvation of the Jews in the times of Mordechai and Esther, vesikvosom bechol dor vador – and You are the hope of the Jewish people in every generation.” So too in our own day, may we merit to see the long-awaited yeshuas Hashem.