Amid a harmattan of news, analysis, and commentary blowing out of Egypt, one Twitter post stands out. An Israeli tweeted:
Dear Egyptian rioters,
Please don’t damage the pyramids.
We will not rebuild.
A good joke always contains a nugget of truth. This one contains two. The more obvious is the reminder that Egyptians and Jews have an intertwined history, going back to antiquity “when Israel was in Egypt’s land,” as the spiritual made famous by Paul Robeson phrases it, the days when the ancestors of many of today’s Israelis were slaves to pharaohs.
The less obvious implication is this: Israelis — and not just Israelis — are concerned that Egypt’s revolution could be commandeered by radicals. Might such Islamists view the pyramids as the Taliban viewed the ancient stone Buddhas of Bamiyan — a shameful relic of the pagan past?
You can’t rule it out. In 1999, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a decree in favor of the preservation of the statues, noting that since there no longer were any Buddhists left in Afghanistan — we’ll leave aside how that happened — there was no danger anyone would actually worship these graven images.
But many Afghan clerics disagreed, saying that the Buddhas — even if they were just photographed by foreign tourists — were nonetheless “against Islam.” And so, in March 2001, the Taliban used anti-aircraft guns, artillery, and anti-tank mines to turn them into rubble. By then, Mullah Omar had changed his mind. “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols,” he said. “It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.”
Six months later, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar’s honored guest, would celebrate the worst terrorist attacks ever carried out on American soil. With him would be Ayman al-Zawahiri, then and now his top deputy, an Egyptian who had joined the Muslim Brotherhood at age 14. With bin Laden and al- Zawahiri in spirit would be Mohammad Atta, the 9/11 terrorist team leader and hijacker-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 which he crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Also an Egyptian, Atta had joined a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organization in 1990.
Do the Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square appreciate how threatening the Muslim Brotherhood is to the freedom they hope to win? Last week I was on Power and Politics, a serious Canadian television show, along with Dina Guirguis, a bright young Egyptian woman currently resident at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Understandably enthusiastic about Egypt’s revolution, she also was dismissive of those who “hyperventilate” about the possibility that it could be appropriated by the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups.
I really didn’t want to rain on her parade. I make no brief for Mubarak, whose goal has been to create a pharaonic dynasty, not leave a democratic legacy. But I couldn’t help but recall that exactly 32 years ago I was in Iran covering an upheaval very similar to the one now taking place in Egypt. And I knew young people very much like Dina — smart, educated in America and Europe, secular, liberal, and excited about the fall of the Shah and the prospect of a new, free, democratic, and prosperous Iran. They firmly believed that Ayatollah Khomeini not only tolerated them — he valued them. After all, the revolution succeeded because, for the first time, the radical clerics had been joined by students, merchants, socialists, communists, and other groups.