I just spent four weeks out of the country, most of the time in Israel plus three days in Jordan and a long weekend in London. Based on that, I offer a few observations about this week’s Egyptian presidential first-round election, which produced two finalists—Mohamed Morsi of the Islamic Brotherhood and former Air Force General Ahmed Shafik. My comments are hardly all embracing, but they may help explain the depth of the challenges facing Egypt in the second year of the Arab Spring.
On a walk in the Israeli city of Karmiel where my cousin, Maxine lives, I saw an Israeli Arab couple get off a bus—he in a rumpled sport coat, she swathed in black. They’d likely come from one of the villages across the highway to shop. The wife followed her husband off the bus then walked on eight to ten feet behind him.
Weeks later at Petra, the ancient Nabataean city in Jordan with its Greek-style “Treasury” carved out of rock (made famous in an Indiana Jones movie), a Jordanian Arab rode a donkey to the exit while his wife walked beside him. Shortly after in the modern town of Petra, I asked a shopkeeper which way we should walk to return to our Jordanian travel provider. He gladly pointed me up the street but became incensed when, after thanking him, I went on without stopping in his shop. “Go away!” he yelled angrily. I had evidently committed a cultural faux pax.
A very different scene: Driving on one of Israel’s many new highways we passed through the city of Yokneam, southeast of Haifa. Israel is a leader in the field of technology, but Yokneam is not Tel Aviv or even one of its suburbs. Yet this city featured two office parks with several dozen modern highrises hosting one tech company after another. In Jordan, admittedly a poor country, I saw nothing like it from Aqaba in the south to Amman, the capital, and beyond.
Let me be clear. These small incidents alone can’t define Arab culture. But they do serve as a reminder that real differences exist between the Arab world and the West—and those differences often run deep. Yes, there are Jordanians, Egyptians and others in the region quite comfortable in the West. But vast numbers of people in the Arab world reject Western culture—from equality for women to separation of religion and state. They see the world through a different lens. My point is not to express a value judgment on that lens but rather to acknowledge that differences exist. It is foolish to expect the Arab world to think just as the West does, particularly when Americans and Europeans, while professing common values, often hold conflicting views on economics, politics and culture.
Next month, Egypt will select its new president from between the two finalists. Change in some form will not be an option. What direction the country takes—whether towards greater integration with global society or a retrenchment into an Islam with minds focused on the seventh century rather than the twenty-first remains to be seen.
What seems clear from my vantage points in Israel and Jordan is that Egypt’s greatest challenge is not changing its government. It’s governing change.
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