Like all newspapers, yesterday’s Palm Beach Post was filled with reports of the civil unrest in Egypt. Two well-known and respected journalists offered their commentary on the situation and a member of the readership, Rabbi Richard Yellin, added his voice by sending a letter to the editor. Of these three contributors, Rabbi Yellin’s words were most interesting so I will save him for last.
Jackson Diehl, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote an article entitled, “Can U.S. get on the right side?”
Mr. Diehl referenced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2009 visit to Egypt, during which she was asked whether the Egyptian government’s human rights violations -- documented by the State Department -- would cause the White House to consider rescinding an invitation proffered to Hosni Mubarak. Bear in mind that President Mubarak had not been to the United States in five years due to his “disagreements” with the Bush Administration over his repressive policies.
Mrs. Clinton’s response was: “It is not in anyway connected. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family, so I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
Mr. Diehl expands upon Mrs. Clinton’s comments by stating: “Thus began what may be remembered as one of the most shortsighted and wrongheaded policies the United States ever has pursued in the Middle East.” His reasoning is that the Obama Administration erred in assuming that President Bush’s stand on the need to liberalize policy in Egypt had harmed international relations and that President Obama’s advisors underestimated the growing civilian opposition to current policy, which was spreading like wildfire. Additionally, when, in November 2010, Mr. Mubarak “fixed” a parliamentary election to guarantee his hold on the presidency, the White House voiced no opposition.
So shortsighted were the “people in the know,” that just hours before chaos erupted in Cairo last week, Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Mubarak’s policies were vested in the “legitimate needs and interests of the people” and claimed the Egyptian government was “stable.” She is now being forced to eat her words made all the more bitter by her public embarrassment.
Those in opposition to President Mubarak’s leadership are demanding that the United States support the demands of the people. They are insistent that a transitional government replaces him and his followers while a new constitution is written. President Mubarak has countered that, should secular forces rise to positions of power, Islamic extremists will gain control.
That was yesterday. Today, President Mubarak has agreed not to run for re-election. The “wait and see” has begun.
A differing opinion was offered by Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times. His commentary was entitled “The devil we know.”
Mr. Douthat questions whether the policy of suppression adhered to by President Mubarak’s regime might actually be responsible for the growth of Islamic radicalism. He suggests the possibility that, as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was pushed out of the country, they were absorbed into a more widespread and dangerous international movement. To that possibility he adds America’s financial support of Egyptian leaders despite human rights violations and the understandable transference of the people’s hate for Mubarek’s regime to the United States.
The question he asks is whether the push for democracy will open the door for America’s enemies to gain more power. His commentary gives credence to two well-known idioms: “politics makes strange bedfellows” and “damned if you do/damned if you don’t.” Without a crystal ball, no one really knows what is going to happen, but one thing history has taught us is sometimes “The devil we know” looks a lot less menacing than the one we haven’t met yet.
Again, the “wait and see” has begun – but waiting, in and of itself, is fraught with danger.
Now we have Richard Yellin, the former rabbi of Temple Emeth in Delray Beach. Rabbi Yellin presently lives in Israel, where he feels threatened by the potential for anarchy in the streets of Cairo. He asks the question: “Are democratic rights more important than lives?”
We all think we understand the meaning of democracy, but Rabbi Yellin questions how the word democracy has been put into practice in certain regions of the world. He fears that a democratic election in Egypt could result in Hamas or Hezbollah ascending into power. Should that happen, the thirty-year peace between Israel and Egypt could/would be quickly shattered and Israel will move from asylum state to death trap. On the other hand, if Hosni Mubarak were to remain in power, Yellin believes there is a good chance peace between the two countries will reign.
Rabbi Yellin thinks, and rightly so, that the world beyond the Middle East does not understand the Arab mindset and fears that our ignorance will allow extremists to erode humanity until we are nothing more than dust in the desert. He expressed that belief quite succinctly in his letter when he wrote: “If human life is less important than human rights, then democracy, too, becomes a subtle tool in terrorist plots.”
So, how do we answer Richard Yellin’s original question: “Are democratic rights more important than lives?”
Would that there was an easy answer, but here, too, we must wait and see.