Why I´m hopeful about the Middle East uprisings (WASHINGTON POST OP-ED) By Natan Sharansky 03/13/11)
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I am often asked why so many Israelis are worried by the popular
rebellions rocking the Middle East and why I´m so hopeful. My
response is that just as their worry is tempered by hope, my hope is
tempered by worry.
The worried among us fear the possibility of long-term chaos and/or
the emergence of regimes even more repressive than those that are
crumbling. Their arguments are serious and deserve an answer.
For decades, the free world´s policy toward the Middle East was based
on the desire for stability, purchased by deals struck with leaders.
That the leaders were corrupt autocrats mattered little. To the
contrary, tyranny was seen as guaranteeing stability, corruption as
guaranteeing that tyranny´s friendship could be bought.
This was rationalized by considerations of realpolitik and the
comforting assertion that we had no right to judge the moral
standards of societies different from our own.
That pact, however, has been definitively exposed as a sham, yielding
not stability but its opposite. And it has been broken - not by us or
the autocrats but by the peoples of the region. Their great awakening
has shattered the truism that, unlike "us," they have no real desire
for freedom. With tremendous courage, they have risked their lives to
In that stirring spectacle lies the first, elemental reason for my
hope that a historical page has at last begun to turn. But the window
is only so wide, and many forces aim to shut it. So what comes next?
Surveying the fall of the dictators, some in the West have
reflexively turned to other, already organized structures within the
societies shaped by dictatorship: notably, the army or Islamist
groups. The unspoken idea is to replicate the old pact but with a
different set of players. Once again the goal is stability,
rationalized now by the alleged absence of other centers of potential
leadership within Arab society and by the "discovery" of moderate
elements within some of the region´s worst actors.
This is delusion squared: an abdication of the free world´s ability
to influence developments in the Muslim world. Take the interest
expressed by Washington in "engaging" the Muslim Brotherhood. As the
Egyptian democratic dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim has put it, this is
akin to announcing that the free world has no choice but to accept
these people as the legitimate inheritors of power. It effectively
turns a blind eye to the unprecedented opportunities of the present
and repeats, obsessively, all the mistakes of the past.
There is another option: to see the region´s democratic dissidents as
our real partners. How many times did I and my fellow dissidents in
the Soviet Union hear the refrain: Yes, you are wonderful people -
but you have no power, you command no legions. And how deep was the
subsequent shock when the impossible happened and the mighty empire,
with its legions and its gulag, collapsed. Who could have predicted
Actually, many did: those dissidents who dared to express themselves,
knowing that theirs were the thoughts and feelings of tens of
millions of others straining against the bonds shackling their
society. With those silent armies behind them, they confidently
predicted the fall of Soviet tyranny.
A lesson should have been learned but wasn´t. Many times, in later
years, I heard the same arguments voiced against efforts to support
democratic dissidents in Arab countries. Yet they, too, knew that
their regimes were destined to fall, and said so - including directly
to President George W. Bush at an international conference in Prague
in 2007. They also warned that the longer the West propped up
dictators, the greater the chance that, when the dictators fell, they
would be succeeded by worse.
Can that fate be averted? Can the democratic reformers of the Middle
East be empowered to shape a better future? It will not be easy. But -
and here is my second reason for hope - circumstances are more
auspicious now than they were for us in the 1980s.
Back then, we dissidents had no Internet, no CNN. The free world, for
its part, had little leverage over Kremlin dictators. Today,
communications are easy and instantaneous. Moreover, the Muslim
Brotherhood is not yet strong enough to seize control and foreclose
on genuine reform. And precisely because of their historical ties
with Middle Eastern governments, the United States and the European
Union are uniquely well placed to guide that process of reform.
The point of linkage is the massive foreign aid the free world has
committed to these lands. By remaining generous, by mobilizing
additional donors from oil-rich Arab nations, and by insisting on
clear and enforceable conditions, we can help forge the building
blocks of a free society: a free press, freedom of religion, the rule
of law and civil-society reform. Entrepreneurs can be recruited to
address the dire housing conditions in Egypt and elsewhere.
International human rights organizations can prove their bona fides
by working with local reformers, including trade unions and student
and women´s groups. Associations like those nurtured by the Internet
project Cyberdissidents can be openly strengthened.
Will we see our responsibility and our opportunity, and act? I worry
that we won´t. I hope that we will. By doing so, we will purchase
true stability for the peoples of the region and for ourselves.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, spent nine
years as a political prisoner in the Soviet gulag. He is the author
of "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny
and Terror." (© 2011 The Washington Post Company 03/13/11)
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