Egypt looms largely in the Christian psyche. Many Christians, in their heart of hearts, associate Egypt today with the Egypt of Biblical times: a bastion of corruption, idolatry, and enslavement of Israel, God’s chosen people. Some American Christians, many of them who consider themselves spiritual heirs to Israel, call upon this scriptural reference when asserting the legitimacy of Israel, and supporting an American foreign policy in the Middle East that favors Israeli interests above those of Arab nations.
But this thinking is misguided in a couple of respects. The Egypt and Israel of today have almost nothing in common with their Biblical analogues. Egypt, despite its long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak, is a modern nation, with a capitalist economy and a relatively educated population. Although an overwhelmingly Muslim country, it has played a moderating role in the Middle East. It is home to a sizable population of Christians and Jews, who practice their religions in relative freedom. This is no Egypt of the Pharos.
Israel is not the land of the Hebrews. This is not the same people who by divine intervention, narrowly escaped from the clutches of the Egyptian empire, and suffered in the desert for years. Modern Israel was created by Europe and America who, after the atrocities of World War II, acceded to Jewish demands to create a separate homeland for them – somewhere where they would never again be persecuted. Most of today’s Israelis are of European stock and many centuries removed from their origins in Biblical Israel.
Understanding the modern implications of these two countries is a key to developing a way forward in Egypt and the other Arab states undergoing rapid social change. First, Muslims and Jews are not inherently antagonistic to each other. Most of the modern conflict stems from the creation of Israel as a colonial state in 1948, and the displacement of its’ Arab inhabitants. Before then, Arabs, Jews and Christians coexisted in relative peace in the region. In fact, going back to the earliest days of the rise of Prophet Muhammad, Jewish traders and religious leaders were Muslims’ closest allies against a corrupt Arab tribal system. Jewish merchants provided safe haven to the Prophet in Medina, a city where Muhammad and his followers fled after being chased out of Mecca. The Prophet also found safe haven among the Christians of Ethiopia. And it is obvious enough that the Islamic religion draws heavily upon Judeo-Christian faiths.