Sent: Friday, January 27, 2012 12:34 PM
Hurrah for Egypt!
by Uri Avneri*
THE IMPOSSIBLE has happened. The Egyptian parliament, democratically elected
by a free people, has convened for its first session.
For me this is a wonderful, a joyful occasion.
For many Israelis, this is a worrisome, a threatening sight.
I CANNOT but rejoice when a downtrodden people arises and wins its freedom
and human dignity. And not by the intervention of outside forces, but by its
own steadfastness and courage. And not by shooting and bloodshed, but by the
sheer power of nonviolence.
Whenever and wherever it happens, it must gladden the heart of any decent
person around the globe.
Compared to most other revolutions, this Egyptian uprising was bloodless.
The number of victims ran in the dozens, not thousands. The current struggle
in Syria claims that number of victims every day or two, and so did the
successful uprising in neighboring Libya, which was greatly assisted by
foreign military intervention.
A revolution reflects the character of its people. I always had a special
liking for the Egyptian people, because they are - by and large - devoid of
aggressiveness and violence. They are a singularly patient and humorous lot.
You can see this in thousands of years of recorded history and you can see
it in daily life in the street.
That is why this revolution was so surprising. Of all the peoples on this
planet, the Egyptians are among the most unlikely to revolt. Yet revolt they
THE PARLIAMENT convened after 60 years of military rule, which also started
with a bloodless revolution. Even the despised king, Farouk, who was
overthrown on that day in July 1952, was not harmed. He was bundled into his
luxurious yacht and sent off to Monte Carlo, there to spend the rest of his
The real leader of the revolution was Gamal Abd-al-Nasser. I had met him
several times during the 1948 war - though we were never properly
introduced. These were all night battles, and only after the war could I
reconstruct the events. He was wounded in a battle for which my company was
awarded the honorary name "Samson's Foxes", while I was wounded five months
later by soldiers under his command.
I never met him face to face, of course, but a good friend of mine did.
During the battle of the "Faluja pocket", a cease-fire was agreed in order
to bring out the dead and wounded lying between the lines. The Egyptians
sent Major Abd-al-Nasser, our side sent a Yemen-born officer whom we called
"Gingi" (Ginger), because he was almost totally black. The two enemy
officers liked each other very much, and when the Egyptian revolution broke
out, Gingi told me - long before anyone else - that Abd-al-Nasser was the
man to watch.
(I cannot restrain myself from voicing a pet peeve here. In Western films
and books, Arabs often bear the first name Abdul. Such a name just does not
exist. "Abdul" is really Abd-al-, which means "servant of"' and is
invariably followed by one of Allah's 99 attributes. Abd-al-Nasser, for
example, means "Servant of (Allah) the Victorious". So please!)
"Nasser", as most people called him for short, was not a born dictator. He
later recounted that after the victory of the revolution, he had no idea
what to do next. He started by appointing a civilian government, but was
appalled by the incompetence and corruption of the politicians. So the army
took things into its own hands, and soon enough it became a military
dictatorship, which lasted and steadily degenerated until last year.
One does not have to take Nasser's account literally, but the lesson is
clear: now as then, "temporary" military rule tends to turn into a lasting
dictatorship. Egyptians know this from bitter experience, and that's why
they are becoming very very impatient now.
I remember an arresting conversation between two leading Arab intellectuals
some 45 years ago. We were in a taxi in London, on our way to a conference.
One was the admirable Mohammed Sid Ahmad, an aristocratic Egyptian Marxist,
the other was Alawi, a courageous leftist Moroccan opposition leader. The
Egyptian said that in the contemporary Arab world, no national goal can be
achieved without a strong autocratic leadership. Alawi retorted that nothing
worthwhile can be achieved before internal democracy is established. I think
this case has now been settled.
AS WINSTON CHURCHILL famously said, "democracy is the worst form of
government except all those other forms that have been tried." The bad thing
about democracy is that free elections don't always turn out the way you
want them to.
The recent Egyptian election was won by "Islamists". The tumultuous first
session produced by this whiff of freedom was dominated by deputies with
religious beards. Elected members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the more
extreme Salafists (adherents of the Salafiyeh, a Sunni tendency which claims
to follow the teaching of the first three Muslim generations) form the
majority. The Israelis and the world's Islamophobes, for whom all Muslims
are the same, are aghast.
Frankly, I don't like religious parties of any stripe - Jewish, Muslim,
Christian or what have you. Full democracy demands full separation between
State and religion, in practice as well as in theory.
I would not vote for politicians who use religious fundamentalism as a
ladder for their careers - whether they are American presidential
candidates, Israeli settlers or Arab demagogues. Even If they were sincere,
I would still vote against them. But if such people are elected freely, I
accept them. I certainly would not let the success of the Islamists spoil my
joy at the historic victory of the Arab Spring.
The way it looks now, Islamists of various shades are going to be
influential in all the new parliaments that will be the products of Arab
democracy, from Morocco to Iraq, from Syria to Oman. Israel will not be a
"villa in the jungle", but a Jewish island in a Muslim sea.
Island and sea are not natural enemies. On the contrary, they complement
each other. The islanders catch fish in the sea, the island shelters the
THERE IS no reason for Jews and Muslims not to live peacefully together and
cooperate. They have done so many times in history, and these were good
times for both.
In any religion, there are many contradictions. In the Hebrew Bible there
are the inspiring chapters of the prophets and the abominable calls for
genocide in the Book of Joshua, for example. In the New Testament, there are
the beautiful Sermon on the Mount and the disgusting (and obviously false
and later inserted) description of the Jews calling for the crucifixion of
Jesus, which has caused anti-Semitism and untold suffering.
In the Koran are several objectionable passages about the Jews, but they are
overshadowed by the admirable command to protect the "peoples of the book",
Jews and Christians.
It is up to the believers of any religion to pick from their holy texts the
passages they want to act upon. Once I saw a Nazi book composed entirely of
quotations from the Talmud - hundreds of them. I was certain that they were
all false and was shocked to the core when a friendly rabbi assured me that
they were all authentic, only taken out of context.
JEWS AND Muslims can and did live peacefully together, and so did Israelis
Just one chapter: in November, 1944, two members of the pre-state
underground Lehi organization (aka Stern Gang) assassinated Lord Moyne, the
British Minister of State for the Middle East, in Cairo. They were caught,
and their trial in an Egyptian court turned into an anti-British
demonstration. Young Egyptian patriots filled the chamber and made no effort
to hide their admiration for the accused. One of the two (with whom I was
acquainted) reciprocated with a rousing speech, in which he dismissed
Zionism and defined himself as a freedom fighter out to liberate the entire
region from British imperialism.
When Israel was founded soon after, some of us suggested that the new state
use this and other acts in order to present ourselves as the first Semitic
state that had liberated itself from foreign rule. In this spirit, we
publicly welcomed Abd-al-Nasser's 1952 revolution. But in 1956, Israel
attacked Egypt in collusion with France and Great Britain, and was branded
as an outpost of Western colonialism.
AFTER ANWAR SADAT'S historic visit to Jerusalem, I was one of the first four
Israelis to arrive in Cairo. For weeks we were the heroes of the city,
lionized by one and all. Enthusiasm for peace with Israel gave rise to a
carnival mood. Only later, when the Egyptians realized that Israel had no
intention whatsoever of allowing the Palestinians to achieve their freedom,
did this mood evaporate.
Now is the time to try to restore this mood. It can be done, if we
resolutely turn our face toward the Arab Spring and its winter offshoots.
That raises again one of the most basic questions for Israel: Do we want to
be a part of this region, or an outpost of the West? Are the Arabs our
natural allies or our natural enemies? Does the new Arab democracy arouse
our sympathy and admiration, or does it frighten us?
This leads to the most profound question of all: Is Israel just another
branch of world Jewry, or is it a new nation born in this region and
constituting an integral part of it?
For me, the answer is clear. And therefore I salute the Egyptian people and
their new parliament: Congratulations!
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