Prepare the ground for a real transition to democracy

Analysis: For fumbling West, Sharansky’s formula for true change could offer the opportunity of genuine democratic reform.

sharanskytoronto311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hosni Mubarak has gone. The people’s will, unprecedentedly, has been done.
The king is dead. Long, 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 Union.
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At the heart of a long interview in these pages on Friday, 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 sustainable democracy.
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.
Critically, according to Sharansky, Washington must avoid the kind of overhasty push toward elections that it demanded for the West Bank and Gaza five years ago.
Insisting 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 them best.
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 reforms.
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 afraid.”
The Egyptians, in Sharansky’s view, must be spared a similarly premature lurch into elections before democratic institutions are built bottom-up.
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 choices.
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 Brotherhood.
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.”
As the West fumbles and stumbles, it’s a message worth taking seriously.
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.