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Israel's Modern Exodus: Faith in Egyptian Democratization

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The image of Egypt as the land of pagan falsehoods and slavery derived from the Biblical Story of Exodus is the theological root of Western and Israeli skepticism on Egyptian democratization. Overcoming this prejudice is a step toward freedom for Israel.

The toppling of Hosni Mubarak by peaceful grassroots protests has been hailed as the historical event that it is. The free world and many in the Arab world have been rejoicing, and most commentators have been positively jubilant for good reasons. This is the first time an Arab leader has been deposed by a popular uprising, and most Western voices and many Arab pundits see the possibility that the Egyptian uprising may herald a new era in the Middle East.

In Israel such hope has been a rarity except in liberal circles. The government has made it clear that it preferred Mubarak's pharaonic, repressive regime, and fear that its alternative will be an Islamic republic of the Iranian type. Former Likud Defense Minister Moshe Arens has gone as far as writing that Israel can only make peace with dictators.

Why are so many Israelis convinced that Egyptian, and more generally Arab, democracy is an illusion? There are, of course, some rational reasons for skepticism ranging from the state of Egypt's economy and educational system to its lack of stable democratic documented in the UN report of human development in 2009. In addition, as I have pointed out in previous articles, Israel's history makes it difficult to move from fear to hope.

But to fully understand the depth of Israel's fear, another, mythical and theological level needs to be addressed. The Middle East is, after all, the cradle of the monotheistic tradition: All three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam (in historical sequence) -- have evolved in this part of the globe.

Egyptologist Jan Assmann, in his justly celebrated study Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism, has shown that Egypt has played a special role in the monotheistic imagination. The Biblical story of Moses leading the Jews' exodus toward freedom and monotheism from Egypt, depicted as the land of slavery dominated by polytheism, is one of the defining documents of the monotheistic tradition.

Replace "Jews" with "the West" and "Egypt" with "the Arab world" and you get the current distinction between the modern, rational West capable of democracy and the Islamic world doomed to backwardness and incapable of true democratization.

Monotheism is based on what Assmann calls "the Mosaic Distinction," the radical cleavage between the claimed true religion, monotheism, and the polytheistic religions it negates. This, Assmann, argues, was a radical departure from earlier religious traditions: polytheism allowed for the coexistence of many religions: it was a matter of course that there are many gods, and neighboring religions could communicate and even merge by putting different gods into the pantheon, sometimes merging and identifying between various gods.

Once the Mosaic Distinction was established, coexistence between religions was no longer possible. This has turned the history of monotheistic religions into a series of often bloody clashes between the three Abrahamic religions each of which claimed absolute truth, and was defined by the negation of the earlier ones.

The Mosaic Distinction is a powerful source of discord and violence, and it fuels the conflict between the West and Islam as well as the conflict between Israel, seen as the West's representative in the Middle East, and the Arab world. It leads to Manichean images, with the West portrayed as the locus of truth, unique in its ability for liberal democracy. The Arab world is depicted as the locus of falsehood governed by the dark forces of tribalism and a religion, Islam, that has war written all over it, and is therefore incapable of true democracy.

This has been perpetuated by the notion of the Clash of Civilizations, a concept originally coined by Bernard Lewis but made famous by Samuel Huntington, who was profoundly skeptical about the idea that Western-style democratization is to be expected to sweep around the world. He therefore strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the neoconservative belief of the American-led democratization of the Arab world.

Huntington was certainly right in opposing the neoconservative notion that democratization could be unleashed in the Arab world through American intervention, as the failure of the U.S. to establish functioning democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan shows. While Huntington gave a carefully argued, albeit debatable, argument, the widespread belief in the inherent inability of the Arab world for democracy rests on the Mosaic distinction that depicts Egypt as the locus of pagan falsehoods.

This is why the Egyptian uprising, the toppling of Mubarak and hopefully Egypt's democratization is important for the world as whole -- and could be crucial for Israel. The West was in no way involved in this transition; it is the expression of the will of the Egyptian people, and a source of autonomy and pride rather than another experience of being goaded and pressured by the West. It has initiated a transformation of the West's image of Egyptians, who are now seen as proud individuals who stand up for their rights.

If Egypt succeeds in its transition toward viable democracy, the implications go way beyond the clear advantages this would hold for Egypt and the Middle East. This may become no less than a transformation of the mythical categories that divide the world and feed images of eternal conflict. This is not easy, because humans are very reluctant to change the world-views that give their lives meaning and structure. But, as I have argued in my recent The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty First Century, human freedom depends on the willingness to be critical of our entrenched beliefs.

For Israel this is of truly staggering importance. One of the few Israeli conservatives who have joined the call to put faith in Egyptian democracy is Natan Sharansky, and we should heed his advice. This will give Israel more hope of peace with its neighbors, and courage to relate to the Palestinian people from a position of mutuality rather than the posture of dominance it inherited from the West's colonial past.

Overcoming the Mosaic Distinction and recognizing Egyptian's potential for freedom would be the true completion of the Exodus for Israel and the Jewish people: the transition from enslavement by myths of the past to the freedom of creating a better future.

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