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Peace at Last?

March 24, 2012

Things look different once you’re in office than they did when you were running for office.  Once you’re actually in charge and can be held to account for the results of your policies, you see shades of gray where you used to see only black and white.  American presidential candidates, for example, have for the last 20 years pretty uniformly told us that they will be tougher on China than the current president has been.  Then the candidates take office, and the career bureaucrats over at State and Treasury bring the new president up to speed on everything that could go wrong if he did what he promised to do to China as a candidate.

Israeli politicians have been concerned about the Arab Spring, out of fear that popularly elected governments in countries like Egypt and Tunisia will be more anti-Israel than were the dictators they replaced.  And certainly given the rhetoric over the years of organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Israelis have reason to be concerned.

We can assume that popularly elected Arab governments will be less subject to American influence than, for example, Hosni Mubarak was, and therefore will be less favorably inclined toward Israel.  But the dynamics of transition from dictatorship to democracy are not so one-dimensional.

However imperfect Egyptian democracy ends up being – and we should not be looking for Sweden-on-the-Nile any time soon – speech will be freer than it was under Mubarak; the press will be freer; and President Whoever’s After Mubarak will be more accountable to the electorate than President Mubarak was.

Permanent enmity with Israel – and therefore with the United States and the European Union – is not in Egypt’s interests.  Anwar Sadat recognized that 35 years ago.

In a democracy, legitimacy comes from the ability to deliver the goods.  Unlike Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood won’t be able to stay in power for 30 years if it doesn’t deliver improved social and economic conditions.  UNESCO ranks Egypt 156th out of 183 countries in literacy, just above Yemen and Haiti, and just below Eritrea and Burundi – and well below Iraq, Syria, Iran and, of course, Israel.  Egypt ranks 123rd out of 184 countries in GDP per capita as rated by the International Monetary Fund – again below Iraq, Syria, Iran and Israel.

Egypt is hugely dependent on foreign aid – not just militarily dependent, but socially and economically dependent.  The Brotherhood’s foreign policy cannot stray too far from Mubarak’s and retain that aid.  Moreover, the Egyptian economy depends heavily on tourism and revenue from the Suez Canal – both of which are sensitive to domestic unrest and international tension.

Then there’s the whole Nixon-to-China thing:  a hardline anti-communist had the domestic standing to open relations with the communists; no one wondered after Nixon came back from Beijing whether he might have gone just a little pink.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic credentials are well established; the Egyptian public will accept a Brotherhood-sponsored settlement with Israel more easily than it would have accepted a Mubarak-sponsored one.

From the beginning of the Arab Spring I’ve expected the Muslim Brotherhood to moderate its foreign policy positions as it comes to power.  What I didn’t expect was how fast that moderation would come.

Already Brotherhood leaders are pushing Hamas to adapt its position on Israel as part of a broader compromise for Palestinian unity with Fatah.  The rationale is that re-united Palestine will have a stronger negotiation position with Israel, and on the face if it that sounds bad for Israel.  But seeking a stronger negotiation position with Israel presumes the validity of negotiation with Israel.  For Hamas, that by itself would be an important change.

Reda Fahmy, the chairman of the Arab affairs committee in Egypt’s upper house of Parliament, acknowledges that things look different from inside the government than they did from outside:  “Any movement of the size of the Muslim Brotherhood, when it is in the opposition it is one thing and then when it comes to power it is something completely different.”  Fahmy’s object is to break the negotiation deadlock between Israel and the Palestine Authority, to achieve an independent Palestinian state.  But his means to that object is negotiation, not war; the Brotherhood has promised to abide by the Camp David accords.  He says that arming Hamas would be “foolishness.”

Even more unexpected is how quickly it appears that Hamas gets it.  Hamas has already conceded that Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas will preside over a Palestinian unity government until elections are held.  Moussa Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas leader, acknowledges that “It’s normal that the Muslim Brotherhood will be more realistic than they used to be when they weren’t in power.”  Fahmy says that Hamas knows that the Brotherhood needs stability and peace.

Israelis are noticing the change.  Retired Israeli Brigadier General Shlomo Brom observes that “Hamas is showing indications that it’s moving towards a more responsible position,” that the Israeli government will eventually accept.

I have always expected that, when peace comes to the Middle East, it will come not by inches, but very quickly.  I don’t know if the Arab Spring will prove to be the breakthrough.  But I am absolutely sure that Arab democracy is in the interests of all concerned – not just Arabs, but also Americans and, yes, Israelis.

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