From The Wall Street Journal:
By DAVID FEITH
'If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book, 'The Case for Democracy.'" With that comment in 2005, George W. Bush created a best seller, impelling hordes of statesmen, policy wonks and journalists to decode this Rosetta Stone of the "freedom agenda."
In the book, Mr. Sharansky argues that all people, in all cultures, want to live in freedom; that all dictatorships are inherently unstable and therefore threaten the security of other countries; and that Western powers can and should influence how free other countries are. Rarely have these arguments been dramatized as during the past weeks—in Tunisia [link], Jordan, Yemen and especially Egypt. So late Wednesday night I interviewed Mr. Sharansky to hear his explanation of our current revolutionary moment.
"The reason people are going to the streets and making revolution is their desire not to live in a fear society," Mr. Sharansky says. In his taxonomy, the world is divided between "fear societies" and "free societies," with the difference between them determinable by what he calls a "town square test": Are the people in a given society free to stand in their town square and express their opinions without fear of arrest or physical harm? The answer in Tunisia and Egypt, of course, has long been "no"—as it was in the Soviet bloc countries that faced popular revolutions in 1989.
The comparison of today's events with 1989 is a common one, but for Mr. Sharansky it is personal. He was born in 1948 in Donetsk (then called Stalino), Ukraine, and in the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the most famous dissidents in the Soviet Union—first as an aide to the nuclear physicist-turned-human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, then as a champion for the rights of Soviet Jews like himself to emigrate. His outspoken advocacy landed him in the Soviet Gulag for nine years (including 200 days on hunger strike).
Mr. Sharansky was released from prison in 1986, after his wife Avital's tireless campaigning earned his case international renown and the strong support of President Ronald Reagan. He moved to Israel, where he eventually entered politics and served until 2006 in various ministerial posts and in the parliament. Throughout, he preached and wrote about, as his book's subtitle puts it, "the power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror."
This idea is the animating feature of a worldview that bucks much conventional wisdom. Uprisings like Tunisia's and Egypt's, he says, make "specialists—Sovietologists, Arabists—say 'Who could have thought only two weeks ago that this will happen?'" But "look at what Middle Eastern democratic dissidents were saying for all these years about the weakness of these regimes from the inside," and you won't be surprised when they topple, he says.
And yet policy makers from Washington to Tel Aviv have seemingly been in shock. Many of them—on the right and the left—look upon the demise of Hosni Mubarak and the potential rise of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood with dread.
"Why is there such a big danger that if now there will be free choice for Egyptians, then the Muslim Brotherhood can rise to power?" Mr. Sharansky asks. "Because they are the only organized force which exists in addition to Mubarak's regime." Mr. Mubarak quashed almost all political dissent, with the general acquiescence of his American patrons. But he couldn't stop the Brotherhood from spreading its message in mosques. Meanwhile, he used the Brotherhood as a bogeyman, telling the U.S. that only he stood between radical Islamists and the seat of power.
It worked. Mr. Sharansky says that in a 2007 meeting in Prague, President Bush told him that the U.S. supports Mr. Mubarak—to the tune of nearly $2 billion in annual aid—because if it didn't, the Brotherhood would take over Egypt.
For all his good intentions and pro-democracy rhetoric, Mr. Bush was inconsistent in practice. By Mr. Sharansky's calculus, simply propping up Mr. Mubarak's fear society would make it more likely, not less, that radicals would gradually become the only viable opposition and be best-positioned to gain power when the regime inevitably fell. And so it is today, as the Mubarak regime teeters.
Still, Mr. Sharansky finds reason for optimism. While recognizing common Israeli fears that Mr. Mubarak's ouster could give Hamas more power in and around Gaza and endanger the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, he doesn't expect the security balance to change much. As he wrote in "The Case for Democracy," over the past 30 years Israel's "border with Syria, with whom we do not have a peace treaty, has been just as quiet, and [I] suggest that Israeli deterrence is responsible for both."
Mr. Sharansky points out that Mr. Mubarak is no great man of peace. Indeed, since 1979, Egyptians' "hatred toward Israel only grew. . . . Egypt became one of the world centers of anti-Semitism." That's because all dictators must cultivate external enemies in order to maintain their grip on power. So even when Mr. Mubarak "lost Israel as an enemy, he continued to need Jews as the enemy."
Mr. Sharansky says the recent uprisings prove his fundamental contentions "that there are limits to how much you can control people by fear," and that all people, regardless of religion or culture, desire freedom. "That's a very powerful universal message. It was very powerful when the Iron Curtain exploded, and it's as powerful today," he says.
He has a prescription for what should happen next. First, he says there's no justification for Mr. Mubarak staying in place. "What would that mean? . . . He could continue for another few months or for another year, until [Egypt] explodes with more hatred toward America and Israel and the free world."
Second, U.S. policy should shift from its focus on illusory "stability" toward "linkage"—an approach that successfully pressured the Soviet Union. That means linking U.S. aid to Egypt's progress in developing the institutions of a free society.
If he were a U.S. senator, Mr. Sharansky says, he would immediately introduce a law to continue support to Egypt on condition that "20% of all this money goes to strengthening and developing democratic institutions. And the money cannot be controlled by the Egyptian government." Ideally his measure would kick in as soon as possible, so that it can affect the incentives of any Egyptian transitional government established to rule until September, when a presidential election is scheduled.
The model for such linkage is the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which forced the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration or lose the economically-valuable "Most Favored Nation" trade designation. But Jackson-Vanik has been controversial ever since its enactment 35 years ago, and Washington has shown little willingness to deploy linkage since.
But Mr. Sharansky holds out hope, partly because on Egypt "the statements from the White House are improving with every day, especially in comparison with its catastrophic statements at the time of the Iranian revolution [in 2009]." By his reckoning, the Obama administration's position during the recent Iranian protests was "maybe one of the biggest betrayals of people's freedom in modern history. . . . At the moment when millions were deciding whether to go to the barricades, the leader of the free world said 'For us, the most important thing is engagement with the regime, so we don't want a change of regime.' Compared to this, there is very big progress [today]."
Inconsistency is par for the course in this field. "From time to time," Mr. Sharansky says of the George W. Bush administration, "America was giving lectures about democracy." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a strong address in Cairo in 2005. And in 2002, by threatening to withhold $130 million in aid to Egypt, the administration successfully pressured Mr. Mubarak to release the sociologist and democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim from prison. In their final years, however, administration officials reverted to bureaucratic form and relaxed their pressure drastically.
President Obama relaxed it even further, Mr. Sharansky notes, inserting only vague language about democracy into his June 2009 address in Cairo. "There was no mention at all that at that moment democratic dissidents were imprisoned, that Mubarak had put in prison the leading [opposition] candidate in the past election," Ayman Nour.
Even if the U.S. embraces linkage, Egypt's September election could be quite problematic. "Only when the basic institutions that protect a free society are firmly in place—such as a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties—can free elections be held," Mr. Sharansky wrote in "The Case for Democracy." In Egypt, those "free, developed institutions," he tells me, "will not be developed by September."
What can develop over the next eight months, Mr. Sharansky says, is a U.S. policy making clear that "whoever is elected cannot continue to survive—he cannot continue to rely on the assistance of the free world in defense, economics, anything—if democratic reforms are not continued and if democratic institutions are not built." After several years of such democracy-building, he says, when dissidents like Mr. Ibrahim enjoy the ability to build institutions like trade unions and women's organizations, "then in a few years you'll have a different country, and you can have really free elections."
For this to happen, "there must be consistent policy in the free world," says Mr. Sharansky. That means "no compromise for the sake of stability with those who will come to power—and who, inevitably, if they have the opportunity to lead as dictators, will try to lead as dictators."
"There is a real chance now," he says. "And the fact that it happened with the country which has the [second-] biggest level of assistance from the United States makes this chance for success even bigger if the leaders of the free world—and first of all the United States of America—play it right."
What shouldn't happen is a repeat of the 2006 election in Gaza, when Hamas won office without demonstrating any commitment to democracy, and Palestinian society had no checks in place to prevent the outcome from being one man, one vote, one time. But the Gaza scenario seems unlikely in Egypt, says Mr. Sharansky.
"Hamas really used a unique opportunity. First of all, there was the policy of Yasser Arafat, who really turned the daily life of Palestinians into a mafia [environment] with racket money paid by all the population to the leaders. That's why you saw when there were elections, many Christian villages like Taiba were voting for Hamas. Why is a Christian village voting for Islamic fundamentalists? Because they were like the Magnificent Seven, saving the village from the mafia. . . . Second, geographically, it was like there was a special closed area, Gaza, which was brought [to Hamas] on a plate by us."
So can the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt replicate Hamas's electoral coup in Gaza? "Only in one case: if the systematic practice of keeping people under dictatorship—so the dictatorship becomes more and more cruel against any dissident thinking— continues and strengthens. Then it'll unite people more and more around the only force which can resist this and get military and organizational and financial support: the Muslim Brothers. . . .
"That's why I'm saying we must be happy that [Egypt's uprising] happened now and not a few years later because then the Muslim Brothers would be even more strong. . . . This revolt happened when the Muslim brothers are not as strong as Hamas was."With Cairo's streets still aflame, the immediate question is how far Mr. Mubarak will go to maintain his rule—how many police trucks will run down street protesters, how many plainclothes thugs will hunt down Western journalists in their hotel rooms. Beyond that, the question is whether over time Egypt will come to pass the town square test. "There is a good chance," says Mr. Sharansky, "but a lot depends. Some Egyptians are now working for this. The thing is whether the free world will become a partner in this work.
Mr. Feith is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.