Hosni Mubarak was the Israeli government’s favourite dictator, so it was hard for them, and for the mass media, to say goodbye to him. Coverage of the uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East has been fairly supportive of the protesters, but Egypt was a special case. As Gabi Ashkenazi, the recently retired head of the army, put it, ‘stability is preferable to democracy.’ The refrain throughout has been: ‘Israel is anxiously following events.’ But on 26 January, the Israeli establishment was hopeful that its neighbours would fail in their struggle for democracy. The daily Ma’ariv, under the headline ‘Trusting Mubarak’, said: ‘Israeli officials are optimistic: Egypt will overcome’ – ‘Egypt’ here and elsewhere meaning the despotic administration, not the people.
In the days that followed, and perhaps as a way of avoiding the charge of being ‘democratophobes’, Israeli analysts took the Islamophobic option. Israel HaYom, a free popular daily owned by the US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, argued that the events in Egypt may be ‘good news for democracy, but in the background is the growing power of the Islamists and the long arm of Iran’. Yedi’ot Ahronot ran an article comparing the Egyptian struggle to the Iranian revolution under the headline: ‘Good intentions – all the way to hell’.
Meanwhile on TV, Channel 2 aired a discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood. It started with a short film about the movement, including a few interviews with its leaders. None of them showed signs of fundamentalism or expressed a desire for a religious revolution. ‘They have said some very moderate things,’ the presenter conceded. ‘They are willing to accept the peace treaty with Israel… and they are willing to recognise Israel.’ But the channel’s correspondent on Arab affairs was there to set things straight. ‘They might have some internal disputes about how they should present their views of Israel,’ he said, ‘but there is no room for mistakes… For example, one of their leaders said today that the peace treaty with Israel should be called off.’ What a relief. The Muslim Brothers were evil again.
According to Ha’aretz, during the first week of the protests Israel called for the US and Europe to curb their criticisms of the Egyptian dictator. When Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was in Jerusalem, President Shimon Peres said to her: ‘The world saw what happened in Gaza when they pushed for democratic elections and a dangerous movement rose to power.’ A few days later, the minister for regional development, Silvan Shalom, said that ‘the West should not push for democracy’ in Egypt ‘as it might weaken the moderate powers there, and will allow Tehran to renew the Iranian Empire.’ So that’s what regional ‘development’ means.
When Mubarak finally stepped down, Yedi’ot Ahronot suggested that an ‘honourable way’ should be found for his departure. In Israel HaYom the foreign editor praised Mubarak for maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, ‘which continued even during Operation Cast Lead’, the Israeli offensive in Gaza two years ago during which 1400 Palestinians were killed. In its concluding sentence, the op-ed said: ‘Thank you, dictator.’