A wind of change has been blowing through the Middle East. What this wind will bring us is yet to be seen. Will it bring democracy to the Arab world? Will it push the Arab world into the hands of dark fundamentalist Islamic movements? Will extreme ideological regimes like Iran’s use this wind to spread their ideology of hate or will this wind push these oppressive regimes out of power?
Looking at Egypt one cannot ignore the significant power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that supports the suppression of human rights, denies women’s rights, and opposes gay rights to an extreme of defining being gay as a crime that deserves a death penalty. Movements like the Muslim Brotherhood are taking advantage of the void in governmental care for society’s weakest layers to gain power and support. They give free health care, social support and free education. It is through the education system that they inject their extreme ideology. We saw this process with Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy in Lebanon, and with Hamas in Gaza. This process leads to a 9-year-old boy who tells you his biggest dream is to become a suicide bomber.
The challenges Egypt is facing are tremendous. Thirty percent of the population is illiterate, 30 percent of the population suffers from extreme poverty, and the health care system is collapsing. Building a real democracy does not happen overnight. It requires creating democratic institutions, splitting power among different branches of government and educating for freedom of speech. Democracy is not only about having the majority rule; it is also about keeping the rights of minorities. Most important, a real democracy must have an ongoing process of open debate and replacement of people in power.
Recent events have proven once again there is a tremendous human rights crisis in the Middle East, but it has nothing to do with Israel. The real, dramatic, terrible human rights crisis is taking place within the Arab countries. Millions in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries don’t have any freedom of speech; they suffer from the lack of secular modern education and health care. Women in many of these countries are treated as slaves.
For the last 63 years Israel has been demonstrating democracy in the Middle East. Like any other country Israel has problems to fix. It is the democratic system that allows open debate and enables things to improve. It is clear that the biggest hope for Israel, as for the Western world, is to spread the message of real democracy throughout the Arab world. On May 15 Tucsonans will come together at the Tucson Jewish Community Center to celebrate the Israel Festival. With the latest events in mind, with a mix of hope and concern, our theme this year will be “63 Years of Demonstrating Democracy.” We are at the edge of historical times; the battle between the forces of democracy and the forces of dark fundamentalist Islamic movements will have a significant effect not only in the Middle East; it will affect the entire world and each and every one of us.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s Israeli shaliach (emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.