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Denverites comment on chaos in Egypt

Albert BankerFOR the Israelites fleeing Egypt in the Exodus, throwing off slavery’s chains may have loomed larger than the weightier concept of freedom.

After a week of massive protests demanding President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation, the dictatorial vise that enslaved Egyptian lives has finally loosened its claws.

Mubarak announced late Tuesday that he would not run for a new term in September.

But in Middle East politics, from now to September is an eternity.

The ultimate direction of this new freedom blows in tumultuous winds.

Disparate groups appear to back Mohammed ElBaradei, former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, as Mubarak’s replacement.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological genesis of Al Qaida, remains a critical force in Egyptian life. The Islamic body distributes food to the impoverished and virulent anti-Semitism to the general populace.

Shaul GabbayThe West is biting its democratic nails.

Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by an offshoot of the brotherhood opposed to the groundbreaking peace treaty he signed with Israel.

Mubarak, Sadat’s vice president, also stood on the reviewing stand that day. Some pundits say it was the luck of the draw — a narrowly missed bullet — that secured his place in history.

Seven hours after the assassination, Mubarak announced that he was “committed to all treaties and obligations that Egypt has concluded” — including the peace treaty with Israel.

The US currently gives an annual $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt to sweeten the deal.

Israeli officials have adopted a cautious wait-and-see approach to the volatile events unfolding in the ancient land of the Pharaohs.

But to his people, Mubarak epitomizes cruelty, terror and gross disregard for humanity. Incidents of military and police torture are rampant. The economy is horrendous. Salaries, even for professionals, are minimal.

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According to the latest statistics, the unemployment rate in Egypt hovers close to 10% and primarily affects people between the ages of 15 and 29.

The faces of protesters streaming over TV networks and the Internet seem to fit this demographic.

Many American Jews observing the conflagration appear to side with the Egyptians’ struggle for civil rights in an oppressive political regime.

But they also are very concerned about Israel.

The removal of Mubarak, a known quantity, creates a vacuum that might open the door for Israel’s staunchest enemies.

The Intermountain Jewish News turned to Albert Banker, who came to Denver after his family fled Egypt in the early 1960s, and to Prof. Shaul Gabbay, an expert on Israel and the Middle East, for insight.

ALBERT Banker, the son of Allegra and the late Moshe Banker, was born in Cairo in 1949. His closest friends were mainly Muslims.

Banker says his father endured some nasty encounters with Muslims after Israel earned its statehood in 1948.

“But when I was a child, it was easy to be a Jew in Egypt,” he says.

Banker attributes the relative calm of the 1950s to the military overthrow of Egypt’s monarchical dynasty.

“Gamal Abdul Nasser signaled the beginning of democracy in Egypt,” he says. “Actually, things were fine under Nasser — most of the time.”

Banker was eight or nine when the Sinai War with Israel erupted in 1956.

“I was very frightened,” he recalls. “Cairo was under total darkness at night because no one knew when Israel would attack.

“But my family was never mistreated.”

In the 1960s, Nasser nationalized privately held companies in Egypt.  Anti-Jewish policies and sentiments spread like wildfire.

“The government took control of major companies, including my father’s import-export business,” Banker says.  “Jews couldn’t own or work for nationalized companies.”

Moshe Banker lost his job in 1962. About two or three weeks later, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) contacted Albert’s parents.

“HIAS heard about our situation and told us they had tickets so we could get out of the country,” Banker says.

“We left for Paris in 1962 and stayed there until we obtained a visa for the US.”

In 1963, the family arrived in the US and headed straight for Denver.

Albert Banker, a retired teacher who belongs to the Alliance, follows the current upheaval in Egypt with sympathetic eyes.

“When you’re in power for 30 years like Mubarak and grooming your son to succeed you, the people suffer,” he says.

“You reach a point where people are so frustrated that despair leads to mass demonstrations. Tunisia serves as a model example of how quickly this can happen.

“I’m glad that Mubarak maintained peace with Israel and was a good friend. But poverty in Egypt is extremely high. The military has to go. The will of the people is being stifled.

“Before his announcement to step down, Mubarak asked his cabinet to resign. However, the problem was not with the cabinet. It was with the leader.”

That said, Banker is deeply concerned for Israel’s safety.

“If the Shiite moment gains strength,” he says, “that could empower splinter factions like Hezbollah and Hamas. If they take control in the elections –– and I don’t think they are strong enough at this point — that would be very worrisome for Israel.

“The Shiites and Sunnis are trying to get along right now.  They seem to be at peace with each other, at least for the moment.

“But when one group takes control, this can lead to strong counterinsurgent feelings in the group that’s out of power. That’s when civil war breaks out.”

Banker believes Egypt’s journey toward a fragile democracy began with the ouster of King Farouk I in the 1950s. Sadat also engendered a new sense of possibility in his weary country.

“It would be difficult to be a Jew in Egypt right now,” Banker concedes. “Whenever tensions flare up, you have this mob mentality that lashes out at minorities. We all know how Jews have been on the receiving end of this throughout the generations.

“But I find my connection to the old country, even from a distance, is still alive.

“Even though we had to leave because we were Jewish, things were good for us for a time.

“The future will tell the story,” Banker concludes. “But I know it will be very difficult in Egypt over the next several decades.”

PROF. Shaul Gabbay connects the zealous uprising in Egypt to similar occurrences throughout the Middle East — and he is convinced the implications do not bode well for Israel.

“If the Egyptians fall in with the Muslim Brotherhood, it all falls down,” he says.

Demonstrations in Yemen and Tunisia resulted in a change of leadership. Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the US, poses an imminent threat to the Lebanese government.

In Jordan, Israel’s only other ally besides Egypt in the Mideast, extreme Islamic protesters are demanding an end to the ruling monarchy and calling for Israel’s destruction.

Now Egypt is one step closer to establishing a new yet vaguely defined democratic regime.

“What begins with ‘democracy’ often ends in Islamic despotism,” Gabbay cautions.

“Do you remember the 1979 revolution in Iran? Ninety-eight percent of the people supported the shah’s ouster to bring about a democratic revolution.

“Look what happened. The ayatollahs took control.”

He says it’s fallacious to assume that democratically elected leaders in the Mideast equate with actual democracy.

Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan instituted many reforms to gain entrance into the EU, has become an Islamist ruler, Gabbay says.

“And the relationship with Israel has soured.”

The Palestinians held free elections in Gaza, and Hamas won.

“It’s important to understand that democracy does not begin with elections,” he says. “It begins in school, at a young age, and takes decades to develop fully.”

ON the basis of these historical examples, Gabbay warns that no one should underestimate the role the Muslim Brotherhood might play in Egypt’s new government.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has the most organized constituency in the country,” he says. “Like Hamas in Gaza, it is perceived as being concerned about society at large, in stark contrast to Mubarak’s government.

“We should be very worried in the West that Islamic extremism might attain power in Egypt — not with bullets, but through the ballot box.”

Gabbay says potential threats to Israel’s existence are no longer limited to a geographically removed Iran.

“Israel is surrounded by Gaza, an unstable Lebanon, an Egypt in turmoil and a shaky Jordan.

“It’s not just about Iran anymore. This is happening on Israel’s borders.”

Gabbay says the US should stand behind Mubarak despite his faults.

“I agree, we’re walking a fine line,” he says. “For 30 years, Mubarak has been a dictator, no question. Maybe now he can start the reform process. And he will be vital in the transition process.

“Now the question is who comes after him. So many scenarios can still play out. Eight months is a very long time in Middle Eastern politics.

“What we do know is that Mubarak is the strongest ally of both Israel and the US in the region,”he says. “Now that he’s fallen, we will all have to face the consequences.”

Gabbay sees one positive amid the political turmoil in Egypt.

“It only took a few days for Egypt to undergo this dramatic transformation,” he says. “That could never happen in Israel. Look around you. Israel is the only consistent, stable democracy in the Mideast.

“My hope is that the US realizes more than ever the importance of maintaining its close relationship with the Jewish state.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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