Democracy rising – Paul Keenan

Democracy rising – Paul Keenan Shalom Cohen

The former Israeli ambassador to Egypt offers his perspective on Egypt’s elections to Paul Keenan

The earliest election results for Egypt came through last week as The Irish Catholic met with Israel’s former (2005-2010) ambassador to Cairo, Shalom Cohen. Inevitably, the scheduled interview turned towards that subject, and the past, present and future of the Arab spring there from this informed perspective.

Unsurprisingly, the major Islamic parties showed major gains in the early polls, with the Muslim Brotherhood performing well across the board, but, notably, with the religiously extreme Salafists trailing.

In spite of such early indicators for the end result, Mr Cohen sounded a cautious note on the unfolding story.

”We are in the midst of events,” he said. ”Giving a definitive answer now would be unwise. Nevertheless, this is something huge.”

The comment must be viewed in terms of the original starting point for the ambassador’s interview with this newspaper, that of the status of the Coptic minority in Egypt post-Mubarak.

”I do not want to be a prophet,” Mr Cohen gently protests when pushed for an assessment of events. However, he carefully offers two perspectives drawn from his analysis of the new Egypt.

”In the short term, first,” he says, ”the process is ongoing, but for the Copts the situation can be much better than in the past, if the process is sincere, towards a real democracy which is open, liberal and transparent.”

Mr Cohen goes on to describe the Copts who ”up to now were not represented as they had no political tools to represent themselves. They suffered the most as they were suppressed both by the regime and the people. Suddenly now there is the possibility of organising themselves politically.”


Mr Cohen bases this first assessment on his years as ambassador to Egypt where, he says, ”I had very good friends in the Coptic community, and experienced good relations there.” He adds: ”I always asked of the Copts, ‘why, at 10 million people, are you not represented in parliament?’ but of course, the answer was ‘we are not allowed, the game was played in advance’ so to speak.”

Now, he stresses, is the time for the community to seize the opportunity presented by the democratisation process. ”Gain ground,” he stresses, ”create unions and parties, newspapers. Organise.”

Attempting to perceive the long-term implications of the Arab spring, however, brings the note of caution back.

”I worry that the Arab spring could be stopped in the middle. If an Islamist regime comes by democratic means, it will, at the end of the day, turn its back on the process itself. I think it will be sad to see a beautiful movement that has begun stopped if religious parties come to power and stop democratisation.”

Under this version of events, ”Copts would be in much trouble, oppressed under a new regime”.

Yet, ahead of such an outcome, Mr Cohen’s advice remains the same, for the Coptic community to make their gains now and, be, more than they were able in the past ”a factor in politics in Egypt”.

One key element identified by the ambassador for the future wellbeing of the Copts – and Egypt’s healthy progression to democracy – is the issue of a separation of state and religion, hardly an easy expectation for a predominantly Muslim nation.

”If Egyptians can make this distinction,” Mr Cohen says, ”the movement can continue. Without that, the Arab people will replace secular tyranny for religious tyranny, and it will be worse.”

On a personal level, Mr Cohen hopes for the best possible outcome for the country. A Tunisian by birth (where he was also ambassador prior to his Cairo post), Mr Cohen stresses his love of Arab culture, its food, its history.

”I am an Oriental, not an Orientalist,” he says with a smile.

”For the Egyptians, an open and warm people beaten down by the former regime, I wish all the best.” For this reason, he concludes, of those who dismiss the will of the people for their own ends, ”we must watch carefully.”