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Egypt in Turmoil

February 04, 2011

Two months ago, on Friday, December 17th {2010}, I participated in my monthly 10am kabbalat Shabbat service at the Federation Early Learning Center, and then spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon preparing discussion packets that would accompany readings by our 8th and 9th grade students at our Shabbat service in the chapel the next morning.

That same day, in Tunisia, a police officer confiscated the fruit of an illegal vendor. When the vendor attempted to take the fruit back from her, she slapped him and then beat him. Hours later, feeling the sting of humiliation and an on-going sense of despair, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office. A few hours later, massive protests against the government, fueled by suffering and hatred for corruption, led Tunisia’s long-time president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to sack his government, call for an election, and flee the country.

Three weeks later, on January 12th {2011}, political backers of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, abruptly left the governing coalition and brought down his government, opening the door for Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad to fill the vacuum. Hariri’s downfall was the result of his refusal to reject a United Nations tribunal investigating the death of his father, a former prime minister. It is strongly believed that Assad encouraged and funded the assassination, so the death of the father that led to the fall of his son was not surprising. In the past month, it was the only thing in the Middle East that lacked for astonishment.

Two weeks later, on January 27th {2011}, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Yemen, one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries, demanding the resignation of its American-backed ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The protests were peaceful, and Saleh agreed not to run for re-election – such an abject use of that word by any despot that it boggles the mind – with the promise that his son would not stand for office either.

In the meantime, the sparks that were consuming governments in Lebanon, Tunisia and Yemen jumped borders to land in Egypt where protests had started {on January 24, 2011} just two weeks after Hariri’s government collapsed. The day after Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to stand down, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak severed most forms of mass communication – the Internet and mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter – and sent army tanks to disperse hundreds of thousands of protesters. Four days later {January 30, 2011}, leaders of government opposition groups met to select Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel Prize winner and former director of the International Atomic Energy Commission, who later received the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, to negotiate for them in anticipation of talks with Mubarak about forming a transitional government. The next day {January 31, 2011} the army declared it would not use force against the protestors, and Mubarak’s most trusted adviser offered to talk with the opposition.

Many of Egypt’s 80 million citizens lack hope and are burdened by a spiking birth rate, rising inflation, lack of proper housing, rampant illiteracy, and enormous unemployment among the young, corruption, and the concentration of national wealth among a few of the president’s cronies. Little wonder that the protests continued to grow.

Mubarak, seeking to cool the ardor of almost a quarter of a million demonstrators, offered to stand down in seven months – an offer that was ridiculed by his opponents – and the demonstrations continued. However, subtle tipping points occurred: shopkeepers called for a return to calmer streets, tourism industry workers pled for Egypt to remain a safe destination for travelers, and housewives yearned for safety in thoroughfares for themselves and their children. Mubarak, a political dinosaur who knows how to read the terrain, took measure of the evolving situation which seemed to tilt back in his favor, and just two days after the army said that it would not use force against the protestors – the army being the one institution that most Egyptians label “good” – the streets were suddenly filled {February 2, 2011} with a show of force by Mubarak’s thugs who brought violence to the streets.

That same day, King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his government and vowed reform in order to avoid the conflict that has raged through the streets of the Arab world. Jordan’s new Prime Minister began a dialogue with key political groups, including the Muslim opposition.

A day later {February 3, 2011}, Egypt’s Prime Minister told state television that the pro-government attacks were, in his words, “a million percent wrong…and everything that happened will be investigated so everyone knows who was behind it.” For a government that rarely makes public admissions of mistakes, that may be the most stunning quote to emanate from the President’s palace in decades.

There is one section of the erev Shabbat service in Mishkan T’filah – the prayer book of the Reform Movement – that I never read, and these are its words: “Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt…” {MT, erev Shabbat service, p. 157}.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitz  irayim, a word that we say or sing every week when we recite the Kiddush:

כִּי הוּא יוֹם תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶש

זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם

”The Shabbat is the forerunner of our sacred days, a reminder of the exodus from Egypt.”

Mitzrayim/Egypt is a place, but it is also a metaphor because it consists of letters that are the root of the Hebrew word meaning “to be confined or constrained.” The words “wherever we go it is eternally Egypt” do not ring true because from time to time we break out of our constraints by redefining relationships that have become stagnant, or we change our profession or, if not our profession, then its location to another city or State because we have become emotionally or intellectually disengaged where we are.

To say that Egypt “is eternally Egypt” is not true either, as has been emphatically borne out over the past eleven days {since the commencement of demonstrations in Cairo on January 24, 2011}. Egypt reels, and the world watches with a combination of fascination and fear to see what will happen. Mubarak may be “eternally Mubarak”: honoring the Camp David Accords signed by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1979, but limiting trade between Egypt and Israel, and minimizing cultural ties. He allows Hamas to act uncensored in Gaza as long as it does not move against him in Egypt, but by keeping Israel’s southern flank quiet, he enables Israel to reduce its security budget and shift its attention to the north. He has been absolutely predictable for better and worse…and it is important to say that the worst is endured by his citizens.

Now a new reality emerges. If Mubarak survives this political maelstrom, he will distance himself from the United States. Incensed by our call that he stand down in favor of swift elections for new leaders, he will continue to willingly accept our foreign aid package, which is second only to what Israel receives from us, but will no longer be as responsive to America’s demands for regional cooperation. If he survives, Israel will be a convenient target upon which he can focus the wrath of his opponents.

If Mubarak falls, who will fill the vacuum? Will moderates prevail? Will the Muslim Brotherhood lead? My best guess is that most Egyptians, having seen what has happened in Lebanon and Gaza where Hezbollah and Hamas are in power, will not ultimately vote for the Brotherhood when the term of office of a transition government concludes, but in the short run, it has systems in place that can quickly deliver health care to the largest number of people possible, and for those in greatest need, that is a blessing. Change is in the air, and its smell is palpable.

Distinctions are important: Hamas operates its own armed militia, voices its enmity toward Israel at every opportunity, and capitalized on popular opposition to Yasser Arafat’s corrupt and brutal Fatah party. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not a militia, though its opposition to Israel is duly noted. If it wants to participate in a future election in Egypt, it should have to promise to abide by the rules and the results – unlike Hamas which contested them in Gaza – and honor Egypt’s treaty commitment to Israel. The American foreign aid package to Egypt is the only leverage that exists to ensure that, and it is an important stipulation as we move into the uncertain future.

There are additional words in the section that I quoted from Mishkan T’filah: “Wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt…[and then the words] there is a better place…” For us, that “better place” is defined by words that immediately follow: “a promised land.” But what is “a better place” for the people of Egypt, and who will lead them there?

We are not as distant from Egypt as latitude and longitude suggest. Egypt is an essential part of our history, and now she has once again entered the realm of our fervent hopes: not just hope that is self-serving, but hope for the people of Egypt. I speak only for myself, of course, but if we are to speak holy words that seek to elevate ourselves above brokenness and disconnection, then my fundamental hope for the people of Egypt – those who are marginalized and forgotten; those who are broken by despair and hunger; those who cannot conceive of a future that is any better than the lamentable past they have endured – it is that they will be blessed with leaders who in the name of change will finally take their needs to heart. The people of Egypt, in the words of the Holiness Code found in the Book of Leviticus, are also created in the Divine image.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin