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Exile and the prophetic: Jews of conscience takeaway on Egypt

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

The title of Alex Kane’s piece on American aid to Egypt tells it all:  Never Mind the Coup:  U.S. Military Aid Will Continue to Flow to Egypt.  Never mind martial law either.

What should American and Israeli Jews of Conscience think about this unfolding drama in Egypt?

American unbalanced aid – with more than a billion dollars going to the military and only several hundred million going to economic development – is less about freeing the Egyptian people than it is about buying the army’s continuing dominance in Egypt’s political affairs, Israel’s security and ensuring American influence. 

On the Egypt-Israel front, the New York Times reports reports that whereas President Morsi reduced communication with Israel to a minimum, the Egyptian army increased communication.  No doubt the army is keeping those lines open now.

What better way to communicate than army to army?  Since Israel is in many ways a military state – an issue rarely discussed in commentaries on Israel’s democracy – when you communicate with Israel’s elected government, you’re communicating with the army anyway.  And since the army is the bedrock institution in Egypt and bound to outlast any particular government it puts in place or removes, why bother with the civilian side of the political process?

Quite predictably, the coup and martial law in Egypt hasn’t solved anything.  Nor are either a continuation of the revolution – as the slogan goes.  Hosni Mubarak was a dictator who outlived his usefulness.  His ouster by the military – who placed him in power in the first place – had little to do with revolution. 

Like most political changes, the ousting of Mubarak and now Morsi, are at best, incremental.  Right now, we don’t know in what direction change will move.  If the Egyptian people are lucky it will be two steps forward, one step back.   Yet with coup after coup and an almost permanent martial law over the last decades the prospect is as likely to move in the opposite direction.

The words of Noura Erakat, a Palestinian human rights attorney,are important here.  Writing in her blog Erakat cautions against premature judgments, including creating a binary between military coup and democracy. She does not believe in Egypt’s “automatic progress” and Erakat worries that things can take a “dramatic turn for the worse.”

Despite planning and specific political approaches among Egypt’s dissident, Erakat realizes that Egypt is “now open to the possibility that the military use this unprecedented popular showing as an instrument to reassert itself.”  Her conclusion is important:  “As those with the comfort to watch from abroad, I think the least we can do is exercise the same level of nuance and complexity that Egyptians, who have tirelessly fought for their freedom and dignity since January 2011 and well before, have done.”

Well stated.  Euphoria doesn’t last long in any sphere of life and automatic progress is never guaranteed.  All struggles are long hauls with decisions being made along the way.  However, when the army is involved – anywhere – the odds are longer and more difficult.

As Erakat advise us, we shouldn’t forget the sacrifice of those directly involved in the struggles in Egypt.  As the story fades from the American political scene, the struggle – and the suffering – will continue.  Nonetheless, it is difficult to keep our distance when such a dramatic confrontation is taking place. 

Are American and Israeli Jews of Conscience distant from Egypt’s continuing crisis?  What is the Jewish takeaway from Egypt’s unfolding drama? 

To begin with we should think about our failure with regard to the American and Israeli armies who trot around the globe and peddle arms in our name.  And with Erakat we shouldn’t accept the binary between military influence and democracy.  Deeply immersed in (democratic) Empire America and (democratic) Empire Israel, Jews of Conscience are caught between Egypt’s rock and hard place, too.

In this latest coup, the least of Egypt’s army worry is confrontation with America and Israel – for good reason.  Egypt, America and Israel are much closer than we think.

Due to editor’s inattention, this post bore Phil Weiss’s byline for a couple of hours Saturday. Apologies.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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4 Responses

  1. HarryLaw on July 6, 2013, 11:42 am

    Arakat says things could take a turn for the worse, they could,Islamists are saying why bother to vote, if we win they will not recognize our victory, this is very similar to the Algerian situation in 1991 in many respects, in the early 1990′s, when the Islamist Salvation Front [FIS] looked like winning the elections after the first round of voting, the government the National Liberation Front [FLN] promptly cancelled the election, at this time the military effectively took control of the government and the President was forced from office.
    After the FIS was banned and thousands of its members arrested they began an armed campaign against the government and its supporters, resulting in whole neighborhoods being massacred, it is estimated that nearly 200,000 people lost their lives between 1991 and 2002.
    The fear then of the Algerian government was expressed by the US assistant Secretary of state Edward Djerjian thus “one man, one vote, one time”. This comment on Marc’s posting yesterday seems to have been lost in the ether, at least I hope so.

  2. richb on July 6, 2013, 12:34 pm

    While those in the region are able to think subtly and avoid false binaries we seem to be incapable of doing that. So if Israel (temporarily) benefits from the new situation it must be wrong. I say temporarily in that by the popular and clear rejection of both military and theocratic rule the Egyptians can show Israel as not being a true democracy. The “best” is the same for the U.S., Israel, and Egypt, a secular, democratic state that protects the rights of religious and other minorities. The Egyptian people took a deliberate risk in their tactics and there is reason to be concerned that the risk doesn’t pay off. But, at least they tried which is something that cannot be said concerning either the American or Israeli people who falsely equate democracy with elections. If there is misbehavior after the elections we post angry blogs on the Internet. The Egyptians on the other hand staged the largest demonstration in human history.

    • Citizen on July 7, 2013, 8:27 am

      The US democracy amounts to a relative handful of millionaires and billionaires betting on their horses.

  3. SQ Debris on July 8, 2013, 5:25 pm

    How many days has the Rafah crossing been closed by the Egyptian military now? That gang of thugs never relinquished power. They just worked around Morsi, in the interest of their paychecks, which means in the service of U.S. policy to crush Palestinian life. Now popular dissatisfaction with an elected government (this same military hobbled) allows them to bring the situation right back to where it was before the “Arab Spring.” Binaries ain’t in it. I don’t recall a lot of banners in the streets begging for a return to military rule of Egypt. The army’s butchery of Morsi supporters this morning sets the stage for armed conflict against this military’s now murderous coup which will likely, in turn, be used as a pretext to re-institute martial law. “Prosecutors have also ordered the closure of the FJP headquarters in Cairo” writes the BBC. Boing boing goes the spring, and it stops exactly where it started. Except there will be more graves than before. Meanwhile returning from the Haj to your family in a refugee camp in Gaza. One more success for U.S. foreign policy.

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