Sharansky on the unrest in the Arab world...
We need to embrace the dissidents...
I am often asked why so many Israelis are worried by the popular rebellions rocking the Middle East and why I'm so hopeful. My response is that just as their worry is tempered by hope, my hope is tempered by worry.
The worried among us fear the possibility of long-term chaos and/or the emergence of regimes even more repressive than those that are crumbling. Their arguments are serious and deserve an answer.
For decades, the free world's policy toward the Middle East was based on the desire for stability, purchased by deals struck with leaders. That the leaders were corrupt autocrats mattered little. To the contrary, tyranny was seen as guaranteeing stability, corruption as guaranteeing that tyranny's friendship could be bought.
This was rationalized by considerations of realpolitik and the comforting assertion that we had no right to judge the moral standards of societies different from our own.
That pact, however, has been definitively exposed as a sham, yielding not stability but its opposite. And it has been broken - not by us or the autocrats but by the peoples of the region. Their great awakening has shattered the truism that, unlike "us," they have no real desire for freedom. With tremendous courage, they have risked their lives to declare otherwise.
In that stirring spectacle lies the first, elemental reason for my hope that a historical page has at last begun to turn. But the window is only so wide, and many forces aim to shut it. So what comes next?
Surveying the fall of the dictators, some in the West have reflexively turned to other, already organized structures within the societies shaped by dictatorship: notably, the army or Islamist groups. The unspoken idea is to replicate the old pact but with a different set of players. Once again the goal is stability, rationalized now by the alleged absence of 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: an abdication of the free world's ability to influence developments in the Muslim world. Take the interest expressed by Washington in "engaging" 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 as the legitimate inheritors of power. It effectively turns a blind eye to the unprecedented opportunities of the present and repeats, obsessively, all the mistakes of the past.
There is another option: to see the region's democratic dissidents as our real partners. How many times did I and my fellow dissidents in the Soviet Union hear the refrain: Yes, you are wonderful people - but you have no power, you command no legions. And how deep was the subsequent shock when the impossible happened and the mighty empire, with its legions and its gulag, collapsed. Who could have predicted it?