Sharansky: Now is the time to push for freedom

In the week that President Mubarak was toppled from office in Egypt, it is fitting that the world’s most famous dissident, Natan Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency in Israel, should have been celebrating the 25th anniversary of his release from nine years in a Soviet gulag. Jews from Arab lands identify with Sharansky’s seminal work The case for Democracy. They experienced the fear societies that Sharansky describes, and and bless the day they found a refuge in the free societies of Israel and the West. Now Egypt stands at the crossroads: will it stay a fear society, or will it make the long hoped-for transition to freedom?

David Horovitz interviews Sharansky in The Jerusalem Post. Read the whole thing:

Israel’s best hope, and that of the West, ran the thinking, rested in cultivating the more palatable tyrants. Arab democracy? How oxymoronic.

So this small, unstoppable man, who has somehow crammed long periods of dissidence, imprisonment, activism and politicking into his 63 years, is feeling a certain vindication on the 25th anniversary of his own liberation. Much more importantly, though, he recognizes the urgency and sensitivities of the hour. Huge public protest, the readiness to push for revolution, he says, is like water coming to the boil. Suddenly it rises up, overflowing with new capabilities. But slam the lid on, turn off the heat, and it falls back.

Iran saw a moment like this, less than two years ago, he recalls. The students, the unions, suddenly they scented weakness. Their frustrations with their Islamist rulers overflowed in the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential elections. They boiled.

But the West failed them. The West, and specifically, a new, untried president, hesitated. The moment was lost. The mullahs slammed the lid on.

This time, says Sharansky – in this fascinating conversation which took place at his chairman’s office in the Jewish Agency headquarters – Barack Obama is sending smarter signals. And Israel, he insists, must internalize how fortunate we are that the revolt is unfolding today in countries where the Islamists are not yet strong enough to sweep into power, in countries dependent on American aid, in countries where the West can yet seek to make its influence felt.

The unholy, unsustainable pact between the West and the dictators of the Middle East is being severed, as it should be, says Sharansky. It is being severed by the people. And their will must be done. (…)

Horovitz: What of the country you left behind? Looking back from 2011, do you feel that the Soviet Union has democratized? Is the political climate there sliding back to totalitarianism?

Russia is still very far from Western democracy. This is especially clear in the judicial system. The courts are not really independent. But those who say it’s the same kind of dictatorship as the Soviet Union, that’s ridiculous. That was a country that was ruled by the KGB. It had millions in the Gulag. There was an army of informers. Today, it’s a different reality.

What happened there, then, is very appropriate to what’s happening now, in our region. People in all cultures under dictatorship become double-thinkers. They live in fear. And they don’t want to live in fear. So when they have a choice to end that, they make that choice.

This double-think, this state of fear, and this desire to get out of fear, is exactly what we see today in the Middle East. All people want to be free, but in the Soviet Union there were also large numbers of nationalities and faiths which were almost erased and which people wanted to live under. What’s happening now in Tunisia, in Egypt, it’s a much more pure example.

In Tunisia, you don’t have any oppressed nationalities. And there was no strong struggle between fundamentalists and secularists. People didn’t take to the streets because of any of that. They simply felt that there was a chance, finally, not to have to live under dictatorship, and that’s what they wanted. And that in turn showed the double-thinkers of Egypt that maybe this was the moment for them, also, to go into the streets. Now, in Egypt, people will say that there are problems with the Copts, and everybody will say that there are problems with the Palestinians and the Israelis [that generate public protest]. But those who went on the demonstrations didn’t go out for the rights of the Coptic Church, and not because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

What brought them to the streets was that they didn’t want to continue living in a fear society, a society in which people who stand up against Hosni Mubarak finish in prison. People like my friend [human rights activist] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who said 10 years ago that Mubarak would put his son [Gamal] in power after him, went to prison, and would still be there were it not for intervention of [the West, and notably] president George W. Bush.

There are always very few dissidents. But the moment people stop feeling afraid, suddenly there are millions of them.

What brought them out to the streets was the desire not to have to live in a climate where what exactly prevailed?

When you have a government which is unchanging, which is not very democratic, the people will have many complaints. And when they express those complaints [in such regimes], they get punished. That’s something that people don’t like. They have to live under self-control, careful about what they say because they will be punished.

In Egypt, five years ago, for example, the editor of a newspaper was simply dragged out of the city and left naked and told not to dare publish one more article against Mubarak. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, likewise, said on the record that elections would be irrelevant, that the next president would be Mubarak’s son. He was arrested the next day.

That’s what happens on the top. That means that, on the lower level, people must constantly control themselves – what they can and can’t say. It’s a very uncomfortable life. If you can get rid of it without risking your life, you try to do that.

And that’s what people in Egypt are doing now?

Yes. And that’s my theory as expressed in my book The Case for Democracy: In every dictatorship, the longer it exists, the more true believers turn into double-thinkers. Then, in the final years of a dictatorship, practically everybody is a double-thinker.

That’s why I was saying, long ago, that Iran is absolutely ripe for social revolution. Iran is actually a unique example where within one generation, very quickly, almost all the true believers became double-thinkers.

There is a very critical moment, which is called revolution.When does it happen? When suddenly big masses of double-thinkers – not one, not two – go over to dissent. It’s like boiling water, when it reaches 100 degrees. Now, if that moment [is missed, and] it goes back, it will immediately disappear. That’s what happened in Iran [when the demonstrations erupted and then faded after the 2009 elections]. Some of the people – big student organizations, trade unions – felt that they could go to the barricades. And millions more were sitting and waiting, with all this Facebook and Internet. But then, at that moment, the leader of the free world indicated that for the US, engagement with the regime was more important than changing the regime. And immediately, it all collapsed.

At that critical moment, the president of the United States failed them?

Oh yes. And that’s what I said to his closest advisers at the time – that I couldn’t understand how the president of the United States could make such a speech. By the way, his speech on the first anniversary of the revolution was great. But it was exactly one year late. Because now, to take these doublethinkers and turn them into dissidents again, well, it’s still there, but you need a more serious push.

The more cruel the dictatorship, the more difficult it is. In Tunisia, there was a moment when the dictatorship became very weak and the people felt very capable. That definitely impacted on Egypt. Dissent was big. Mubarak looked weak, because of his health and other factors. And they rushed out.

And now, more than two weeks later? Has the president of the United States got it right this time?

Much better. Though it’s easy to be better than he was on Iran, which was terrible. I was in the United States in those first days of protest in Egypt, and [Vice President] Biden said, of course Mubarak is not a dictator. My God, I thought! Millions of people are going to the streets to say Mubarak is a dictator, and the leaders of America say he isn’t?! But the next day, I see something happened in the White House, and Hillary Clinton comes out with a better statement and President Obama says the right thing.

The “right thing” being that the people of Egypt must determine their own future?

Yes. Now the critical step, which has not yet been made but which can be made, is the linkage. The free world is lucky here in two respects. First, that what happened in Egypt happened when the Muslim Brotherhood is not yet strong enough [to sweep into power]. The longer there is dictatorship, the longer the free world helps to destroy all democratic dissent, the stronger the Muslim Brotherhood becomes. In Prague, in 2007, (at a meeting of international dissidents that Sharansky organized), Saad Eddin Ibrahim asked president Bush, Why are you supporting Mubarak? Bush answered: Because otherwise there will be the Muslim Brotherhood. Saad Eddin Ibrahim said: That’s a mistake. That if you want the choice for Egyptians to be either Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, it will ultimately be the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ten years ago, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would have had 10% support. Today they say they have 25 or 30%. Who knows what it will be in 10 years if things don’t change. People are unhappy. The only alternative to that unhappiness has been the Muslim Brotherhood. The free world has been helping to destroy any democratic alternative.

So it is good that this is all happening now in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong enough.

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