Who Knows What Will Happen in the Middle East? Omar Sharif Knows as Much as the Pundits Do


What the H&^% is going to happen to the middle east? Darned if this middle east commentator knows. I’ve avoided writing about the uprising in Egypt as long as I possibly could because this one’s got me stumped. I have long believed that the essential dynamic in the Arab/Israeli conflict is one of Arab peoples repressed by brutal dictatorships and autocracies. This repression and denial of basic rights and freedoms – to think, speak, create, to interact freely, to prosper – along with a heavy dose of anti-Israel propaganda, is a rotten stew many Arab people have been fed, along with a militant version of Islam, for many decades. While the Arab world’s dictators and monarchs starve their people of freedom, opportunity, progress, and basic necessities, they themselves enjoy unbridled freedom, excessive luxury, un-earned and unlimited power. Meanwhile, hatred of Israel remains an essential escape valve for the people’s frustrations – the employment of which is the one job at which these leaders demonstrate startling competence.

Viewed through this prism, the uprising in Egypt, like last week’s Tunisian uprising, is a hopeful sign of progress to come. Unruly it may be in the short term, but up close, how many revolutions in history have been pretty? It is nonetheless a birthing of, if not yet democracy, some state of being that could eventually lead to democracy or at least a system in which people are free to have some greater say in the manner of their lives and some greater opportunity than they do now.

That was my initial take. But maybe it was an excellent editorial I read last week by Josh Lipowsky, formerly of The Jewish Standard, that postulated the Egyptian protesters would, in destabilizing the region, only be likely to usher in a greater clash between Israel and radical forces in the region, that made me cautious. Caroline Glick in this week’s Jerusalem Post takes a hard look at both Mubarak and the protesters and explains that this issue is not just who Mubarak is – a harsh dictator, to be sure – but also the character of the protesters that matters.

As violence has, in places, erupted in recent days, this situation is starting to look like it could turn into rule by the mob as opposed to an uprising of citizens seeking democracy. Even if most Egypt’s protestors are good and courageous, there is still the chance radical elements could take over.  And Israelis can’t afford too many idealistic notions. The neighborhood’s just too rough.

Two observations: 1) A recurrent theme among pundits over the last few days has been something to the effect that the U.S. supported Mubarak, a dictator brutal towards his own people, because Mubarak was good towards Israel. Let’s insert a little reality: Mubarak is no Sadat, nor was he uniformly good to Israel. For many years he allowed the continued smuggling of arms into Gaza via underground tunnels that originated in Egypt while accepting $1.3 billion a year from the U.S. as a reward for a cold peace with Israel and maintaining regional stability. He was also two-faced in allowing his official state media to be filled with incendiary anti-Israel propaganda.

Whoever comes next can, and probably will, be worse, especially if the U.S. does not take a strong stand and exert influence in filling the power vacuum.

2) Since no one seems to really know what to make of this, I am going to allow myself to indulge in the most foolish practice I know of: quoting a celebrity about current events. Normally celebs don’t know any more than the average person about world politics or policy, and in some cases have a lot less common sense or “real world” experience than the average person, but that doesn’t stop some of them from spouting extremely strident opinions. Normally this annoys me but in this case, since no one else knows what’s going on, I will quote Omar Sharif, the Egyptian actor whose films for a time were banned in his native Egypt because he kissed Barbra Streisand in the film “Funny Girl.”

He says he fears “Egyptians do not Know What They Want.” I’m guessing he knows as much as anybody at this point.

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