The Stakes in the Middle East

Has the Muslim and Arab Spring been dangerously deflected, its brief moment of democratic hopefulness hijacked by the hard men of power? Observing the bloody events in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, not to mention the crackdowns in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, many have drawn just that conclusion. Even in Egypt, where a dictator was successfully toppled and elated citizens flocked to vote in a national referendum, the future seems, at best, up for grabs.

All this has reinforced the worries of those in Israel and the West who warned from the start that little good was likely to come from the popular rebellions rocking the Arab and Muslim world, that they might be followed by long-term chaos and anarchy or by regimes even more repressive and dangerous than those now on or over the edge of collapse.

But not so fast. No movement toward freedom has succeeded in the blink of an eye, absent a struggle, or without periods when all has seemed lost. In the case of this latest movement, not only has its work barely begun, but it is up against a formidable combination of odds. That is why the next phases are so crucial—and why in my view the nations of the free world must, without delay, seize the moment to lend a hand.

What sort of hand, and how? Here a little history is in order.

For decades, the policy of the free world toward the Arab and Muslim Middle East was based on a simple principle: The overriding aim was stability, purchased by deals struck with leaders. That the leaders in question were autocrats of one stripe or another mattered little; neither did the cruelty and rank corruption endemic to their rule. To the contrary, tyranny was seen as the guarantor of stability, just as corruption guaranteed that the regimes’ friendship could be bought.

And so a pact was struck. Sometimes the terms were transparent, a prime example being the 1993 “peace” deal between Israel and Yasser Arafat. The arch-terrorist’s dictatorial powers were openly embraced as ensuring his control of terrorism, while his corruption was underwritten by an international agreement that poured many tens of millions of dollars intended for the Palestinian people into his private slush fund. More often the terms were masked, as in relations between France and Tunisia, or the US and Egypt. But the quid pro quo—support for stability—remained the same, rationalized by considerations of realpolitik and the comforting assertion that we had no right to judge the behavior of societies with moral standards different from our own.

Repeatedly, however, and now definitively, that pact has been exposed as a sham, yielding not stability but its opposite. And, the recent setbacks notwithstanding, the old pact has been no less definitively broken—broken not by us, and not by our partners in Cairo, Tunis, and elsewhere, but by the awakening peoples of the region themselves. This great awakening cannot be wished away. It may be stalled; it may be temporarily forced underground; but it cannot be extinguished forever. Already it has accomplished something historic: shattering the longstanding truism that, unlike “us,” the Arab and Muslim peoples of the Middle East have no real desire for freedom, that they are content with living in societies dominated by fear. With tremendous courage, they have done nothing less than to put their lives on the line to inform us otherwise.

A historical page has at last begun to turn. But, practically speaking, the current window of hope is only so wide, and, as we have seen, many are the forces aiming to slam it shut. The question is, what comes next?

Surveying the fall or near-fall of the Arab dictators, some in the West have reverted to habit, turning wistfully to well-organized structures within the society shaped by those same dictators: notably, the military on the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups on the other. The unspoken idea is to replicate the old pact but with a different set of players with whom the West can continue to do business on the same terms. Once again the goal is stability and security, rationalized now by pointing to the alleged absence of any 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. What is really being justified is an abdication of the free world’s own ability to influence the momentous developments now gripping the Muslim world. Take the evident willingness expressed by Washington to “engage” 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, complete with their determination to install an Islamic government, as the legitimate inheritors of power. It is to turn a blind eye to the unprecedented opportunities of the present and to commit oneself to repeating, obsessively, all the mistakes of the past. “They [the Muslim Brotherhood] are stubborn and nobody knows their real intentions,” said an Egyptian factory owner after voting in the March 19 referendum. “That is not what the revolution is about.”

There is an alternative: to throw one’s support unequivocally behind the reformers and democrats who represent the real hope for a future of peace, liberty—and stability.

Sharansky PhoneI can hear the response already. How many times did my fellow dissidents and I in the Soviet Union hear the same response during our own hard, long march to freedom? “Yes,” went the refrain, “you democrats are all wonderful people—but you are few and you command no legions. What can we in the West do but try to work through your masters, the ones with the army, the ones holding the instruments of power?” And how deep was the subsequent shock when the impossible suddenly happened and, army or no army, gulag or no gulag, the mighty empire collapsed. Who could have predicted it?

Actually, many did. Even in the most freedom-starved Communist societies, just as in the Arab world today, dissident men and women were thinking free thoughts and daring to express them. They also knew that their thoughts were the real thoughts, their feelings the real feelings, of tens of millions of others straining against the bonds of a fear society and yearning to break free. The presence of those silent armies behind them was what enabled so many dissidents to predict with assurance the fall of Soviet tyranny.

A lesson should have been learned from this experience, but wasn’t. How many times, in later years, did I hear the same phrases and arguments voiced against efforts to support democratic dissidents in the Arab nations and genuine reformers within Palestinian society? “Your ideas about freedom,” Ariel Sharon assured me when I served in his government, “have no relevance to the Middle East.” Yet those dissidents and reformers existed, and in Syria, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia they were mounting pro-democracy protests. Fully aware that their own thirst for freedom was widely shared and ultimately irrepressible, they also knew, and said, that their regimes, too, were destined to fall. In 2007, at an international conference of dissidents in Prague chaired by José María Aznar, Vaclav Havel, and myself, they conveyed their assurances personally to President Bush. They also warned that the longer the West continued to prop up the dictators, the greater the chance that, when they did fall, 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 than the one being readied for them by the princes and generals and Islamists, enabled by the skeptics and false realists in today’s free world? It will not be easy. But—and here is another lesson from history—the fact is that circumstances today are in many ways more auspicious than they were for us in the 1980s.

Back then, we dissidents had no Internet to help us organize and build our constituencies, no satellite TV to publicize our plight, and, with Western broadcasts heavily jammed and correspondence regularly opened, no normal way to establish contact with individual foreigners or human-rights groups abroad. For its part, the free world had little leverage over the dictators in the Kremlin. Today, communications are easy and instantaneous. Moreover, at least for the moment, the governing structures are on the defensive and scrambling to hold on, while the Muslim Brotherhood is not yet strong enough to seize control and foreclose the possibility of genuine reform. Finally, and precisely because of their longstanding ties with Middle Eastern governments, the US and the European Union are uniquely well placed to guide that process of reform.

The first duty, then, is to speak out, clearly and repeatedly, in unqualified support of the protesters’ right to expression, and in no less unqualified sympathy for the cause of democratic dissidents in their struggle against still-existing regimes and their potential non-democratic successors. Strong words in themselves are not sufficient, but they are crucially necessary.

The second duty is to match words with deeds. The aim must be to create the conditions that will enable masses of ordinary people to cross the fear barrier and participate actively and openly in the building of free societies. Only thus will the West avoid falling into the fatal choice of relegitimating dictatorship.

Here the critical point is linkage, whose instrument is the massive amounts of foreign aid the free world has committed to some of the lands in question. By continuing to remain generous, by recruiting other donors from, especially, the oil-rich nations of the Arab world—and by placing clear, verifiable, and enforceable conditions on our largesse—we can decisively help form the essential institutions of an open society: a free press, freedom of religion, rule of law, civil-society reform, the freedom to organize, and the rest. In Egypt and elsewhere, local entrepreneurs can be mobilized to address the dire housing conditions. International human-rights organizations can prove their bona fides by finding and working with local partners dedicated to democratic reform, including students and women’s groups. Individuals and groups like those nurtured by the online project Cyberdissidents can be openly strengthened and empowered.

In speaking of the duties of the free world, I of course mean to include the State of Israel. Although for obvious reasons Israel cannot take the lead in the international efforts outlined above, it can contribute significantly to them, especially in its immediate neighborhood. Simply by existing and flourishing, Israel has already provided its Palestinian neighbors with a powerfully alluring demonstration of the blessings of freedom and democracy. Nor, at root, is the Palestinians’ problem with the State of Israel; it is with their own autocratic leadership. The so-called peace process was built in partnership with such leaders, and it proved as disastrous in improving the lives of Palestinians as it did in delivering peace for Israel. Now, on the West Bank, there are hopeful signs of a liberalizing economy and of cooperation with Israel on security and other matters. By encouraging the spread of similar bottom-up processes in law, education, media, and civil-society reform, Israel can help promote a Palestinian society founded on democratic principles, ruled by accountable leaders, and prepared for peace.

The principle of linkage is the same everywhere: the sooner the free world moves, the quicker the building blocks of civil society can be formed. The quicker those building blocks are established, the more thoroughly will the democratic spirit influence the growth of representative parties and institutions—and the brighter will be the chances of a positive outcome overall.

Will we, all of us, see our responsibility and our opportunity, and act? My worry is that we won’t. My hope is that we will. In doing so, we will not only keep faith with the masses of individuals now giving their lives to the dream of change, but purchase true stability for the peoples of the region and for ourselves. 

March 29, 2011

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