Hosni Mubarak has gone. The people’s will, unprecedentedly, has been
The king is dead. Long live...er, who or what, exactly?
February 11, the day Mubarak internalized that he could hold on no longer as
president of Egypt, eerily coincided with the date in 1979 when the shah’s
regime collapsed, paving the way for the Islamists to take the control of Iran
they have ruthlessly maintained ever since. It also, extraordinarily, coincided
with the date in 1986 when Natan Sharansky walked to freedom from behind the
Iron Curtain in East Berlin, presaging the collapse of the Soviet
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At the heart of a long interview in these pages
Sharansky set out a formula which, if followed, just might ensure that the
process that caused the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 ends more beneficially than
the one that saw the ousting of Reza Pahlavi 32 years ago. It is a formula that,
if heeded, just might offer the opportunity of a region-remaking process of
genuine democratic reform, rather than, as unfolded in Iran, simply clearing the
stage for a headlong decline into vicious, anti-democratic – oh, and implacably
anti- Israeli – Islamist extremism.
The Obama administration immediately
embraced the Egyptian public’s demand for democratic change late last month –
having, appallingly,failed to do likewise when Iranians took to the streets after the fraudulent
presidential elections there in 2009. But it has shown no clear appreciation of
how it might use its influence to help Egyptians ensure a transition to
And it does have real leverage, Sharansky says.
Whoever wants to lead in Egypt, he argues, will look to the free world rather
than to the Iranians or the Saudis, and will look to maintain the colossal
financial support that the US has been providing.
to Sharansky, Washington must avoid the kind of overhasty push toward elections
that it demanded for the West Bank and Gaza five years ago.
that the Palestinian parliamentary elections be held in 2006, when the only
choices available to voters were, as he puts it, the “thugs” of the late Yasser
Arafat or the “terrorists” of Hamas, the Bush administration oversaw not a
transition to Palestinian democracy, but rather a meaningless poll held in a
“fear society,” where the result merely reflected “the balance of fear.”
Palestinians simply voted for whichever violent faction it thought might protect
What was needed then for the Palestinians, and what is needed
now for the Egyptians, and in any and every other autocratic Arab regime where
Sharansky emphatically hopes a mass shift to dissidence may unfold and prevail,
is the gradual establishment of truly democratic conditions in which to then
create a truly democratic electoral process.
For a start, he suggests,
the US Congress should immediately pass legislation maintaining financial aid to
Egypt only on condition that 20 percent of it go to democratic
Sharansky, in our interview, set out no timescale in the
Egyptian context, but in Gaza, he recalled, rather than unilaterally disengaging
in 2005 and setting in motion the process that led to the Hamas takeover in
2007, prime minister Ariel Sharon should have sought “a transitional period, for
three years of reforms, together with the Americans.”
Sharon should have
striven to ensure, in that period, that a fully independent economy be
established, education be reformed, and conditions created for elections in
which “people would have different options and they would be protected, not
The Egyptians, in Sharansky’s view, must be spared a similarly
premature lurch into elections before democratic institutions are built
When election day comes, the people must know that they can
confidently vote their conscience. A range of political parties must have been
granted the free conditions to organize, to reach out to the public, to promote
their agendas directly and via a fair, unintimidated media. The voters must be
confident that they will face no persecution for their political
They must be spared elections in a climate of fear – spared the
bleak choice between the Mubarak loyalists and the only currently organized
opposition, the patient, muchunderestimated, far from benign Muslim
It may have surprised some readers to hear Sharansky, a
hawkish figure in partisan Israeli political terms, sounding so enthused by the
ongoing uprising of the Arab masses.
But his argument is that
partnerships with dictatorships are unsustainable – that people cannot
permanently be repressed, that they will push for freedom the moment they sense
weakness in their tyrannical leaderships.
In his assessment, Israel and
the West are fortunate that this Arab revolution is unfolding in countries still
closely tied to the West, in societies yet to have been battered into an
overwhelming retreat toward Islamic fundamentalism.
It may have been
striking, too, to hear Sharansky, so skeptical about the endless peace efforts
to date, declare that “democratic reform” could succeed with the Palestinians
too, to argue that “the majority of Palestinians don’t want to continue living
in refugee camps. They got closer to the ideas of the free world... because of
their proximity to Israel. But the fact is, they were never given the
opportunity to choose [genuine democracy].
“If the free world helps the
people on the streets, and turns into the allies of these people instead of
being the allies of the dictators,” Sharansky reasons, “then there is a unique
chance to build a new pact between the free world and the Arab world.”
the West fumbles and stumbles, it’s a message worth taking
Natan Sharansky’s indomitable struggle against tyranny and for
the freedom of his people, after all, proved arguably a central factor in
expediting the demise of what had seemed to be the mighty, impervious Soviet
Union. He might just know what he’s talking about.
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