From tyranny to freedom

Though Pessah is about the Jews leaving Egypt, this year, says Natan Sharansky, Egyptians too can celebrate escaping the bonds of their own modern-day Pharoah.

Natan Sharansky 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Natan Sharansky 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Twenty-five years ago, Natan Sharansky left the bonds of the Soviet empire and made his way to the Promised Land. That year marked his first Pessah in Israel. Now, the former Knesset member and current Jewish Agency chairman is calling on the free world to support democracy and let the Arab world have its own exodus.
Sharansky’s views on democracy are not new. He has published two books on the topic, the first in 2004 and the second in 2008. But what is new is the unprecedented civilian uprisings occurring throughout the Arab world, that not only reinforce and confirm his theories, but also create a monumental opportunity for change – one he says the West is ignoring.
In an interview with Sharansky at his home before Pessah, while on a quick stop-over in Israel between foreign engagements, he discussed his views on Pessah,freedom and the means to free the Arab world from their bonds of tyranny.
According to Sharansky, on Pessah, when the Jewish people were liberated, we found both our freedom and identity as we became a nation. Later when we received the Torah, we were given our national mission, which, he says, is intimately connected to “tzelem elokim (man’s God-like image), human rights, freedom, and tikkun olam (repairing the world). It’s expressed in our tradition so powerfully, and that’s why it’s so important to remind us again and again, at the Pessah Seder, and that’s what has given us strength for thousands of years.”
To achieve this goal of repairing the world, man must be liberated from the bonds of tyranny and dictatorships. And according to Sharansky, the tool to do that is democracy. But democracy is not just about letting people have a say in government and the right to vote. “For the last two or three hundred years there has been this idea of liberal democracy, and it has nothing to do with the rule of the majority. The rule of the majority is one component, but the most important thing is the rights of the individual,” he says.
According to Sharansky, we are in a unique period in which the Western world can enable liberty in Arab countries. “For over a hundred years there was an understanding that in the Arab world we can only have stability if we support their dictators, because they can never have democracy,” says Sharansky, who adds that people believed there would never be a process in which the will of the people would influence the government in these countries.
But according to Sharansky, there were similar beliefs about other nations as well. In the 1970s, he says, the argument was that Spanish-speaking people could not have democracy because of their militaristic culture, but by the end of that decade every Spanish-speaking country had become a democracy. And similarly, he says, people believed the same thing about Slavic nations in the ‘80s, but by the end of that decade most east European states were free as well.
Currently, the belief of many is that the Arab mentality is not capable of democracy. But Sharansky says those people now have to explain the events at Tahrir Square in Egypt. “For probably the first time in history, we have a situation, when Arab masses are speaking, and their message is they don’t want to live under dictatorships,” he says excitedly.
“Here, the free world gets a big gift – the people themselves are breaking this structure. And what is the response of the free world at that moment? Mainly political,” he explains. According to him, the Western world has played a cautious game of supporting the ruling tyrant, as long as he seems stable. But that practice is flawed for two reasons: One, the dictator is not actually stable and can fall at any moment, because though a dictatorship presents an image of stability, in reality it is full of suppressed dissidents waiting to rebel. And secondly, as recent events have proven, the residents of these dictatorships do in fact want freedom, and are finally voicing that aspiration.
So what is the West’s responsibility now?
“Our reaction has to be to bring moral clarity. This is a unique opportunity for us, for the free world, to say: ‘Dictatorships are illegal!’” says Sharansky.
And according to him, we should not be afraid of the potential democratic leadership that may arise, even if it’s hostile towards Israel. Because, he says, there are no dangerous free societies, and there’s never been a war between two free societies or democracies.
But hasn’t the world said, for example, that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is illegitimate? “It’s good that it was said, but what was making him more legitimate months ago? Now his participation in UN human rights committees is suspended. But three months ago, it was legitimate?!” asks Sharansky rhetorically.
“Gaddafi and his country, throughout history, has been a launching pad for terrorist organizations – German terrorists, Japanese terrorists, Arab terrorists, African terrorists. They all had their training camps there. So to say that now he became illegitimate – it’s good that they said it, but it’s politics,” says Sharansky.
Instead, the West should seize the opportunity and ban similarly dictatorial countries from human rights committees. “Syria is also on the human rights committee, and millions of Syrians are saying that it’s a corrupt dictatorship. Iran is one of the driving forces of human rights committees, and now the people of these countries themselves are speaking for freedom. These are people who are violating the rights of their own people – they cannot be our partners in voting on the questions of human rights.”
And Sharansky says that people have the mistaken belief, often preventing them from criticizing dictators, that condemning a dictator is equivalent to condemning his people. “When [Ronald] Reagan said the Soviet Union was an evil empire, millions of people behind the Iron Curtain were very happy. So if today, the leaders of the free world say that dictators and evil societies are not legitimate and cannot be our partners, most of the people in these evil societies will be happy to hear it. This is the time,” he says emphatically.
“America is hated in Egypt because they were supporting the regime. People asked how Egyptians could hate us if we’ve been giving them financial support. Well, if there’s 70 billion dollars in Mubarak’s account, then it wasn’t going to the people.”
What about the Palestinians?
“The peace process can only be built from the bottom up,” Sharansky says. “Peace processes which go from the top down, and that’s what has been happening since 1993, are doomed to failure. Because when you begin from the top, you need, first of all, a dictator who can control the situation. That’s exactly what we did in 1993, and we said it was good to have Arafat as a dictator. But first Arafat made sure his people hated us, and then his people started hating him and his system, because it was a racket and corrupt.And the end result was that Hamas came to power.”
According to Sharansky, instead, we should be building from the bottom up, something he proposed to then prime minister Ariel Sharon, but with no success. His vision is that with international efforts, together with those Palestinians who want to participate, there should be economic reforms, educational reforms and the dismantling of refugee camps. “After some years of reform, elections will be held, and a democratic leadership can be appointed. Maybe [the leadership] will hate us as much as they do now, but it will be dependent on the wellbeing of its people. If it doesn’t improve the conditions of its people it won’t remain in power. That is the type of leadership with whom we can sign a peace agreement,” he says. “But we are far from this, because it didn’t start from the bottom-up,” laments Sharansky.
And as for the current Palestinian leadership, he says the biggest problem is that there are still no signs of any educational reform, or of a leader willing to make concessions concerning the refugees. “As long as Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] says that to accept the idea of a Jewish democratic state means to betray people sitting in refugee camps, that means he won’t tell them they’re not going back to Tel Aviv and Haifa. And the problem is that this leadership is under no pressure to do it, because it feels it can simply continue playing political games with the world, it can get, politically, everything it needs without taking any difficult steps.
“The more dictatorial you are, the more important it is to use political messages because that’s how you keep people under control. The more democratic you are, the more important it is to tell people you are going to improve their conditions, like dismantling refugee camps,” he says.
So in practical terms, what steps should the West take?
“When we are dealing with the question of human rights in the world, people who violate the human rights of their people cannot be our partners in the UN. When we are dealing with financial efforts to advance the world, people who are putting billions of dollars of public money in their private accounts cannot be our partners.”
And when asked about using his position in the Jewish Agency to advance these views, Sharansky says, “I don’t think my position in the government was more or less influential than my position now. I’m the head of the Jewish Agency and I want to stand for the position of the Jews of the world and speak about our values. When I was in the government I had a direct connection to the peace process, but in the government I was a minority, sometimes a minority of one on these issues, so I didn’t have a lot of influence.”
But Sharansky stresses the time factor of this opportunity. “At the moment, when things are so confused and unclear, it’s very important to bring moral clarity. The West must say fear societies are illegal, and sooner or later they will be removed by their own people.
“Now the situation is changing because there are so many forces in the Arab world who say yes, democracy is for us,” he says. “And if this will influence Western policies, and I do hope it will, no doubt more democracies can start being built even without us. While we continue being skeptics, they will already begin making practical steps.”