A Middle East scholar just back from Israel and Egypt told members of the American Jewish Committee that the “Arab Spring” is “probably bad for Israel” in the short term but more “hopeful” in the long term.
Christopher Taylor, professor of religious studies and director of Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict, spoke to nearly 60 people at a private home in Short Hills on July 28.
“The political leadership in Israel, like everybody else, is not sure where this thing is going. They are worried about where it might go,” said Taylor.
“In the short term, the Arab Spring is probably bad news for Israel because it is very unstable and all the governments around Israel have used hatred of Israel as a pressure relief for their own societies for so long. It is a kind of knee-jerk reaction. You still find anti-Israeli vitriol, and that is disturbing.”
But, he added, “you also find this fascination with what Israel is like and ‘How can I get in touch with Israelis?’ and that kind of thing. If democracy does come to places like Egypt and Syria, I think it will blow the Middle East into a totally different reality, and probably for the better. It is hard to imagine its being worse.”
Taylor, who lived in Egypt for seven years and since 1980 has visited there annually, traveled last month to Israel and Egypt for a second time in 2011.
His trip to Egypt in January came in the midst of the popular uprising against the country’s dictatorial president, Hosni Mubarak, whose regime — in Taylor’s words — maintained a state of “cold peace” with Israel.
Asked whether a new Egyptian government might abrogate a 43-year treaty with Israel, Taylor responded probably not. “There is too much money invested in peace right now, especially because of the long-standing natural gas pipeline that links the two nations,” he said.
One concern in Israel and elsewhere is that if a new Egyptian government becomes dominated by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, its leaders might seek to nullify the treaty with Israel. Taylor said Brotherhood members told him that “no one is going to go back on that agreement. There is too much invested to go back to war.”
Moreover, Taylor insisted the Muslim Brotherhood “is not interested” in running a candidate for president, “because they know whoever becomes president is, like Obama, inheriting a perfect storm.”
The Brotherhood, he said, “provides a wide range of social services as well as a political agenda. But their political agenda has been driven by simply rallying people in opposition to the government in power…. For the first time in their history, they have had to articulate the things they are for, and the more they do that, the more they discover that a lot of Egyptians aren’t interested in what they are selling.”
Taylor called the Brotherhood “a complex organization dominated by wealthy businessmen that is getting a lot of pushback from younger people. It is facing the threat of fragmentation and has already begun to fragment.”
And even if the Muslim Brotherhood “did win and imposed some kind of a draconian Islamic state,” Taylor claimed, “they would have another revolution on their hands from the secular Egyptians,” some of whom are are politically to the left and some to the right. “There is a broad mixture and it transcends social classes. It transcends political ideology. It transcends religious groups. It is a significant force to be dealt with.”
Asked by an audience member about the role of women in Egypt’s revolution and beyond, Taylor said, “Women are in the middle of everything. There are even Islamist feminists. There is a very weird mixture of things going on. Women are very active. One of the best things I see going on is a very deep soul-searching about the way women — all women — are treated in Egypt by men, in terms of jobs and roles in society.”
Taylor also said he believes Israel should “pay more attention to what is going on in Egypt and Syria than to what is going on in Iran,” which he does not view as an existential threat to Israel. Speaking to NJ Jewish News after the meeting, he said that “the government of Israel feels overwhelmed by what is going on in Egypt and Syria and Iran is easier to focus on. They have been so fixated on Iran that the Arab Spring has caught them off guard.”
But despite Iran’s using Israel as “a kind of whipping boy for its own political purposes,” Taylor said, he doesn’t think Iran is going to attack Israel.
“I think Iran is definitely developing nuclear weapons as part of their own sense of national pride,” he said. “Do I think they would use them against Israel? No, I don’t. It doesn’t make sense to me. Iran has nothing to gain by attacking Israel.”