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.
The second principle that points a way forward is that the quest for self-determination among the people of the Arab world is rooted neither in Muslim extremism nor anti-Israeli sentiment. The popular uprisings of recent weeks are home-grown reactions to the oppression everyday people have suffered from successive governments going all the way back to the Ottoman Empire. They are an indication that theocracies as a form of government do not measure up to the realities of today’s world. The demonstrations thus viewed, denote the growing political maturity in the Arab world. With a relatively young population, they have access to the West through the television and the social media. They are eager to join the rest of the world and they admire American prosperity. The reigning regimes in much of the Arab world are holdovers from a bygone era. They came to power at a time in which the West was concerned about Soviet expansionism and Israel was concerned about Islamic extremism. But these people – the people of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia and the popular uprising boiling over in Egypt – are not those people.
Even as the righteous demands for self-government emerge in the shrill screams of the oppressed Arab masses, the world is coldly assessing the geopolitical implications of true freedom. Will these movements be co-opted by radical Islamic groups? Will free and democratic Arab countries hike oil prices up? Will they succumb again to a different set of corrupt dictators? Many leaders and pundits give lip service to their support for the popular uprising, but one wonders whether a different story is being sold behind the scenes.
As a democratic and largely Christian nation, America should never be afraid of the emergence of freedom. Surely, Egypt’s emerging democracy will be different from America’s political system. Egypt is a Muslim country located in Africa with its own history and traditions. It is only natural that their form of government will take on characteristics unique to its culture and history. We should applaud and celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of this nascent democracy. After all, its people have proven that they are willing to pay the price. In a world in which the struggle for liberty often carries with it the certainty of death, they chose liberty.