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Conversation with Prof. Donna Divine

By Cindy Mindell

Donna Divine

WEST HARTFORD – West Hartford resident Dr. Donna Divine is  Morningstar Family Professor in Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College, as well as associate faculty member at the University of Haifa and Bar Ilan University in Israel.
Divine spent the month of June co-facilitating a study and internship experience in Jerusalem, part of the Smith’s Global Engagement Seminar program. An expert on Middle East politics
and cultures, she not only engaged her students in an exploration of the political and religious history of the holy city, but also cast an eye south, to the goings-on in Egypt in the wake of the May elections.
Divine spoke with the Ledger about how the new political order is apt to affect Israel and the region.

Q: Does U.S. media give us a clear idea of what’s been happening in Egypt since the protests?
A: I have been arguing that the media doesn’t fully understand what’s going on in Egypt – because a member of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president and the Islamist parties did so well in the parliamentary elections. Some see this as a takeover by the Islamists. Alternatively, because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deprived the president of powers, it was essentially a military coup. That’s not entirely accurate, because a lot of the interventions were through the Egyptian court system, both administrative and constitutional.
What’s going on in Egypt is that you have a number of different institutions – the court system, unions, professional associations – and under Mubarak, they were allowed limited freedom and a range in which to operate and he often used them to counter one another. If the labor strikes were demanding too much and hurting the economy, he could get the court system or security forces to intervene.
What you have are institutions that have a history of operating under a very authoritarian regime, but who haven’t agreed on a new set of rules, so are operating the same way as always. The Supreme Court decisions are based on precedents of the Mubarak era because there is no new Constitution. There are now different kinds of institutions operating without a common set of rules,
The situation is very chaotic and uncertain, and tends toward instability or provoking instability. But it’s not clear that you only have two political entities fighting for power. You have power that has been fragmented and divided much more widely, and it will be very difficult to overcome all these issues: not only what office has power to do what, but by what set of rules do you decide that? There are many unknowns,
Layering over this situation, and not helpful, is the deep and abiding conspiratorial outlook and set of values that affect even the more educated, liberal sectors in Egypt. From people who ought to know better, there is a kind of rational approach to things where you need evidence: for example, it was an American conspiracy that caused a Muslim Brotherhood person to win the presidency, and that allowed the military to withdraw certain powers from the president.
In reaction to the killing of the 15 Egyptian soldiers this week in the Sinai, you have the Muslim Brotherhood blaming Mossad.
This is not helpful. If you have a sector of Egyptian society that wants to organize and modernize and have some kind of credible democracy, you have to have some real sense of what’s going on, not base your approach on animosities or deeply embedded hostilities.

Q: What is important to understand about the power of the Muslim Brotherhood over Egyptian hearts and minds?
A: The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt. The founder and Egyptians who supported it believed that Islam has the power to motivate people and that, when you’re weak scientifically, economically, etc., and when people are controlling you, the only way to escape that control is to use the power of religion. It was founded to free Egypt from the British, with branches elsewhere.
Mohammed Morsi, current president of Egypt, was recruited to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood while he was getting his PhD in engineering at the University of Southern California. The roots of his attraction to this organization came on American soil, where he had plenty of access to other views.
In the Egyptian election, the Islamists in the first round for president got a much lower percentage than in the parliamentary elections. Most Egyptians wanted democracy because they thought it would help them live a better life. Since Mubarak left power, the standard of living has gone down and there is chaos because the economy hasn’t been restored. The president knows that he’ll be judged by how well his government performs.

Q: In your opinion, how well did the Obama Administration react to the Egyptian revolution?
A: I have a lot of criticism of Obama’s Middle East policy, but I’m’ not sure America would have had much of an influence in Egypt. The problem with the Administration’s response is that it waited long enough to anger protestors and reacted quickly enough to anger the Saudis – and won no particular support in the Middle East. The conventional wisdom was that Morsi won the vote; it was close but he won legitimately, more or less, or more than they’ve had in the past. If that election wasn’t certified, there would have been riots all over the place. The Americans were not going to intervene in this case. It’s a very delicate situation and I don’t think that Obama played it all that well, but he did not all that badly. He’s done much worse with Syria.

Q: There’s been much talk about this being a “Facebook revolution.” How much of the Egyptian population was represented in the revolution?
A: You would have to say that a large percentage of Egypt was suffering for several years. The price of staples had gone up tremendously, and the corruption was so visible. There wasn’t even
a pretense of fairness.
The Facebook and “Twitterati” who initiated the protest probably don’t even know what most Egyptians live like; they won’t even go into the poor sections of Cairo, let alone the squatter settlements and villages all over the country. They’re not like most of Egypt: a heavy percentage of Egyptians is illiterate. The negative effects of these demonstrations were hidden, including the attacks on and harassment of women in Tahrir Square.
When the organizers were calling the first demonstrations, they had done so many times before and just a few people had shown up and they didn’t know what would happen. They wanted to build on numbers and the only way to do so was to connect with the Muslim Brotherhood members whom they knew from university because the Muslim Brotherhood knew how to get people into the square. Even the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t know how far this would go, didn’t know that the army wouldn’t support Mubarak. They helped turn out people in the square to stop traffic and business and led the Facebook people through the interviews with CNN.
This notion that wonderfully literate, intellectual, liberal Egyptians would take over in Egyptian was silly and misguided. Power was actually handed to military officials – it was a coup without guns. Egypt has a 40-percent illiteracy rate; the poor live on under $2 a day; there is a threat of starvation and chaos.

Q: How do these developments affect Israel?
A: The danger for Israel is not that Egypt is going to abrogate the peace treaty and launch a war. They’re not capable; in the short run, even if the most radical Islamists take power, no Arab country has a strong enough state to take on Israel. The danger is that they’re all failed states, and what you have is groups like in the northern Sinai who make a living from attacks. The danger is more terrorist attacks and a border that Israel once could ignore but can’t now. Israel will do what’s necessary: it’s already building an electronic fence and will deploy more resources to the area. It is the case that Egypt is harmed by such terrorist groups as much as Israel; in the latest instance, much more than Israel. What has happened to the Sinai in Egyptian history has been an indicator of success or failure for rulers: Nasser lost the Sinai in 1967 and that delegitimized him.
The Sinai is not insignificant to the sustenance of an Egyptian regime. The Muslim Brotherhood is announcing the opening of Sinai to Gaza more than they’re doing it, and it may be difficult for a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to look at Gaza and say, “We’ve got to close the borders,” but they’ll do it if they have to.

Q: What do you see as the overall impact in the area of the Arab uprisings?
A: Even in countries whose leaders have not been ousted – Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman – there are riots and demands for more freedoms.
In all of this, the Palestinian issue is off the Arab agenda; they claim it’s not but you can only do so much. With an Egypt or a Tunisia, leaders can make all kinds of statements about their embracing the Palestinian cause and still wanting to liberate Jerusalem, that they hate the Zionists, and the hatred for Jews and Zionists runs deep – but they’re in a much weaker position to do anything for the Palestinians. The money used for the Palestinians can’t be used to shore up their own regimes.
You have the Assad regime killing many times more people; the casualty rate in the upheavals in Syria over the last year-and-a-half is much higher that the Palestinian casualties in all the wars with Israel. Assad was the godfather of resistance to Israel and now many people in Syria understand what the costs were in their lives for sustaining a regular focus on resisting Israel, promoting terrorism to hurt Israel, and supporting Hezbollah. All of this is known even if it’s not publicly acknowledged.
There are a lot of casualties; the Arabs are killing themselves. The world will be less and less reliant on Arab oil, as more natural gas is being discovered. Things are in transition and are always volatile and difficult during a transition.

Q: How do you think the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is faring in the wake of the Egyptian elections?
A: People criticize Netanyahu for not being more creative or initiating more possibilities for negotiations with the Palestinians. He could be more creative, but on the other hand, there are so many unknowns that there is no chance of a Palestinian government strong enough to sign a peace agreement now.
I think the Palestinians who are residents of Jerusalem and who can vote in municipal elections have only hurt themselves by not voting, because if you don’t have someone you helped elect around the table discussing the distribution of government resources, you won’t get any. What would be good is more collaborative projects – economic, technical projects, enterprises, educational projects, and other concrete kinds of things. The more you get away from trying to establish firm principles and negotiate who has a right to this or that, and raise the standard of living for Palestinians while not harming Israeli security, I say, go forth and do that.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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