Israel’s Skepticism About Religion in the Egyptian Government: Ironic?

December 2, 2011 • Blogs, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 1106

by Danielle Bella Ellison:

Parliamentary elections in Egypt, which began on Monday, are expected to bring religious groups to power in the post-revolution government. The prospect of an Islamist government in Egypt is very worrisome to Israel for many reasons. However, while these concerns are legitimate, there is an element of theoretical irony to them: the Israeli government itself is currently largely beholden to right-wing religious parties.

While former President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt had been oppressive, its government had been basically secular, ruled by the National Democratic Party. This was one of the key reasons for the West’s support of Mubarak despite other questionable internal policies. However, after the revolution in Egypt that ended Mubarak’s 30-year reign, Islamist parties were allowed to be officially licensed and to put candidates forward in elections that will no longer be rigged to support Mubarak’s party.

Egypt's first fully free elections were held this week. (Ahmed Abd El-Fatah/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most influential Islamic movement in the region, has formed the Freedom and Justice Party, which is expected to get the most votes of any party in the elections (which will last through January 10). Notably, it is unclear how much the results of the elections will matter in light of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ determination to maintain its ruling power, which it has been enjoying these past months. Nevertheless, there is currently an alliance of sorts between the Brotherhood and the SCAF.

The prospect of an increasing level of Islamism in Egypt’s government is disturbing to Israel and the West for many reasons. An Islamic regime based on Sharia law could be oppressive and archaic, as the law far from guarantees freedom and civil rights and liberties. Furthermore, a religious state leaves the many Christians and other non-Muslims in Egypt severely marginalized. Finally, there is the fact that such a regime would treat women as unequal second-class citizens.

In addition to these worries, the key concern that an Islamist Egyptian government will be more hostile towards the West and certainly towards Israel remains. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated this week that Israeli security interests are potentially at risk if a more religious government in Egypt decides to renege on the existing peace treaty with Israel. At a minimum, it is unlikely that Israel will have as close a relationship with a new Islamist government as it had with the previous secular one.

But at the same time, Israel has its own significant problems with the religious elements of its polity. While Israel is a secular liberal democracy, since it is also a Jewish state with a majority Jewish population, Jewish law and custom is integrated into many provisions of Israeli law. For example, the national calendar takes into account the Jewish holidays, and marriage laws and conversion status in relation to the right of return and citizenship are beholden to Orthodox Judaism. There is currently much contention in Israel about the right-wing religious parties, such as Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, having problematically high levels of influence in the Israeli government as a result of the coalition and voting systems in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. In particular, the hardline right-wing policies of these parties are identified by many as a key barrier to peace with the Palestinians and to improving relations with other Arab neighbors. The place for religion in Israel’s government is a question that is struggled with daily. Nevertheless, Israel is not exactly close to having religious doctrine replace secular law.

The essential debate at hand is whether democracy must necessarily be associated with the Western conception of liberal, secular democracy, or if the Israeli Jewish hybrid or even Islamic democracy is an acceptable alternative. Millions of Egyptians, far more than expected, turned out this week to vote. If they vote, in democratically free and fair elections for Islamists, mustn’t their votes and voices be counted?

Danielle Bella Ellison ’15 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, focusing on Israel and its regional politics. Contact her at danielle.ellison@yale.edu.


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