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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sharansky on democracy, freedom, Egypt

The Jerusalem Post has a long interview with Natan Sharansky, giving him a chance to apply his concepts of freedom and democracy to what is happening in Egypt. Excerpts:

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.

And secondly, it is good that it is happening in an Egypt that gets the second biggest foreign aid package from the United States [after Israel]. America has a lot of leverage. A lot of linkage for any future Egyptian leader. Whoever will be the leader of Egypt, if he wants to solve problems, he will be very dependent on the free world. He will not go to Iran for help.

If the free world makes clear that our help is tied to democratic reforms, there is a chance finally to start building a drive forward. This [untenable] pact between the free world and a bunch of dictators ostensibly bringing us stability was not broken by the free world. It was broken by the people in the streets. We have to go with this. This is the chance. I hope America will take it.

We saw a White House that quickly, to the dismay of some in Israel, abandoned its ally Mubarak and has also encouraged the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the transition process. Is America getting this right?

America gets it right that Mubarak is a very problematic ally and in the long run cannot be any kind of ally. That’s true about all the dictators. At some moment, America will get it about Saudi Arabia. That was always the most difficult case, even among those [American presidents] who understood...

Like George Bush.

Bush went further with the freedom agenda than any other. It was great. He really, idealistically believed in this. The point on which he disagreed with me – although he told everyone to read my book – was over elections. [Contrary to what Bush believed], freedom and democracy doesn’t mean elections. Democracy is about free elections and free society. You must have free institutions.

He rushed into elections [for the Palestinian parliament in 2006]. He forced Israel to accept Hamas as part of the democratic process. Under all our agreements, we didn’t have to accept Hamas, because it denies our right to exist. And it was a clearly anti-democratic choice. He rushed to elections when the only choice for the Palestinians was between the torturing thugs of Yasser Arafat, who we empowered, and the terrorists from Hamas who were defending them. They voted for Hamas, an absolutely nondemocratic element. That was [Bush’s] mistake.

With the Obama administration – instead of taking a principled position and supporting any leadership which will support democratic reforms, and saying we will go together with you through these reforms and help – the danger is [over the readiness for] engaging: We will engage with whatever will come as a result. We’ll make them part of the process. That’s exactly how Hizbullah in Lebanon, step by step, became [ostensibly] legitimate partners.

On the day of the elections in the Palestinian Authority, I was at the White House, saying to them, this is your last opportunity. In 24 hours, the election results will be announced. You need to say that the results of the election have got nothing to do with democracy. Otherwise the whole world will say, well, this is Bush’s democracy: Hamas. And I was getting explanations: We’ll impose conditions; they will not be a majority in the government, this and that.

Elaborate please on why elections alone do not constitute democracy, on why you need free elections in a free society.

A free society means that there are institutions which guarantee to every individual the opportunity to choose between different ways of life, and that their lives will not be in danger, whatever they choose. In the Palestinian society, for instance, they had Israel’s occupation. After that, they had Yasser Arafat, who turned his Authority into a type of Mafia-run country where people were paying him patronage. I can tell you, as a former minister of industry and trade who tried to negotiate with Nabil Sha’ath on joint ventures to help their economy and create more jobs, that they were not interested in anything that would make their people more independent of them. They were interested only in how to establish more control. People were really fed up with this. That created a really nasty situation.

Then, there was a transition to Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) after Arafat died. And Bush asked me, is Abu Mazen a good guy or a bad guy? I told him, I can prove to you that he’s a bad guy, because I read his PhD (on the purported connections between the Nazis and Zionist leaders) in Russian. And I can prove to you that he’s a good guy in comparison with Arafat, because I saw them both at the negotiating table. But it doesn’t matter. He will now depend fully on your policy. The Palestinian Authority is fully dependent on the free world. America. Europe. If your policy is clear linkage to specific reforms, and you make plain that is there is no way Abu Mazen will get any legitimacy, or any recognition, or any support otherwise, he will go with it.

In fact, Bush did put these demands to Abu Mazen, but he never made the linkage explicit. He didn’t say: If you don’t do this, these are the consequences. And of course he didn’t have Europe behind him.

That meant the Palestinians moved almost immediately (to elections) from a situation in which they were still full of fear of the Arafat regime. In some Christian villages, Hamas was deemed to be a better protector, so the Christians suddenly became fundamentalists and voted for Hamas. That’s what you get when you have elections in a fear society. [The elections reflect only] the balance of fear. In that balance of fear, at that moment, Hamas got 51%. At some other moment, it would have got a different percent.

I wrote in my letter of resignation from Arik Sharon’s government [in April 2005] that Hamas would take over in Gaza [under his imminent disengagement plans]. That it would be bad for Jews, bad for Palestinians, good for Hamas. Instead of disengagement, I suggested making a transitional period, for three years of reforms, together with the Americans, maybe together with the Egyptians. See to it that, in these years, a fully independent economy would be established, normal education, dismantling of refugee camps and building good conditions for them, and of course cooperation to fight terror. Then, I suggested, after three or four years like this, hold elections. Those would be free elections. People would have different options and they would be protected, not afraid. And then you would have partners to negotiate peace. You would have people who, whether they hate you or not, whether they are anti-Semites or not, are elected because they are concerned about the well-being of their people.
...In the West Bank there are the first signs of a truly free economy. That’s good. There are no signs of improvement on the education system. There are signs of independence, of forces that are cooperating with us, on security. These are the beginnings. If this process, which must also include education, continues...

What’s needed on education?

The official [PA] education is that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist. There is not one Palestinian leader who is ready to go to a refugee camp and say, “Guys, we are going to have our own state. But you’re not going back to Tel Aviv. Let’s start discussing other options.”

Remember, I don’t know which meeting it was – there were so many – when Olmert gives Abu Mazen generous proposals and asks him only to recognize us as a Jewish, democratic state? And Bush is absolutely sure that Abu Mazen will now say this, because he’s getting so much. And Abu Mazen says no. Bush was surprised. Olmert was surprised. They were so sure that this generous proposal would do it. But Abu Mazen said it would be “a betrayal of our people in the refugee camps” to recognize a Jewish, democratic state.

Of course, it’s not only a question of going to the refugee camps and saying it. You also have to start building normal lives for them. You can’t keep them in the refugee camps in order to use them as a weapon against us.

So there are the first sparks. But it’s a long process. That’s why all these declarations, that we can reach peace in one year, or half a year, or two years, mean nothing. That’s just going back to the same idea of engaging with somebody, finding somebody with whom we can sign an agreement.

The idea that Abu Mazen is fully dependent on the IDF, and the hope that somehow he’ll be so dependent, he’ll agree to sign an agreement.

Wrong, because...?

What you need is to build peace from bottom-up. And bottom-up means democratic reforms. But I was always told, “Forget about it. It’s not for the Arab governments.”

And now?

And now it’s coming from the other end. Not from the peace process at all. Here, people are coming and demanding to build from the bottom, without any connection [to the peace process]. This is a great chance.

So how now, in the Egyptian context, should the West be acting? What signals should be sent. You’re the leader of the free world, what do you do?

If I was in the Senate, I would immediately pass a law maintaining US assistance to Egypt on condition that 20% of it goes to democratic reforms. What’s needed is real linkage.

The desire of the people has to be heard. It’s not up to us to decide whether it will be Omar Suleiman or Mohamed ElBaradei or someone else [who takes over]. Whoever it is, whoever is the leader, won’t want to depend on Iran, or even on Saudi Arabia so much. So they have to listen to the free world, and after all, Egypt is between the free world and Muslim fundamentalists.

And the entire free world has to say, “We are ready to help you, we are ready to support you, we are ready to be with you, but on condition that: first, there is no persecution for freedom of speech and for free press and so on; second, there is an independent economy; third, there is a tolerant, pluralistic education system where people can choose how they want to learn, what they want to learn; and, finally, that agreements that were signed with the neighbors about stability in the region have to be respected.

The entire free world should say that only those who accept these principles, and accept the principles of democratic change, should be permitted to participate and be empowered by the process. If the Muslim Brothers genuinely accept everything, then they can be part of it. But if, whatever they say, they continue in their mosques to speak about the war against Israel, or they declare that democracy will not determine what to do, then they cannot be a part of it. At this moment, it is still possible for the free world to do this.

So you think there is an extraordinary opportunity now, and that America has sent at least some of the right signals?

Yes. I think there was no opportunity as long as there was a strong belief, almost a unanimous belief, among the leaders of the free world that only strong dictators in the Arab world can bring us stability, and that only strong dictators are our allies, and that this can continue more or less forever. There was no chance.

No chance of what?

No chance of reform and also of a peace process. The moment this pact between democracies and dictators is broken, then there’s a chance for new concepts, for a new approach. It depends on us now. On the Arab side, they made their stand. The people made their stand, showing that “we’re here,” that “those who thought freedom is not for us, well, it is for us.” Now it is for the leaders of the free world to show that they really believe in this for them.

To set out the framework?

As Obama said in his inauguration speech, a fist to dictators and an open hand to those who want reform.

(Obama declared, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.)

And what if, three steps ahead, Egypt, other Arab countries, the Palestinians, amazingly enough, with correct signals and assistance from the West, do go through this process? But that it then turns out that the will of the people, in a genuine, democratic society, is to wipe out the State of Israel? That that’s what the people want?

We should never stop, not for a moment, relying on the strength of the IDF, but this is the only chance [for a true change]. For all the so-called peace process, we are more and more dependent on the IDF... on our capabilities in war. I don’t think that we have to weaken. But the only chance to create something whereby we’ll be less dependent on our military power is to give a chance to democratic reforms.

And I think it’ll succeed, because I think, in the end, the majority of Palestinians don’t want to continue living in refugee camps. They got closer to the ideas of the free world, a free economy, more education, than did many others, because of their proximity to Israel. But the fact is, they were never given the opportunity to choose. In 1993, we brought Arafat from Tunis, who said, “Now we’ll be a dictatorship.”

So Israel shouldn’t be panicking as it looks at the region now? We should be saying well done to the Arab masses for telling the West that they don’t want to live under dictatorship?

This is the moment for those Israelis who believe that peace has to be built bottom-up. They have to prepare for that chance. Israelis like me, like [Minister Moshe] “Bogie” Ya’alon. There are not many. This is a great moment. Let’s try to use it.

For those who didn’t believe this, for those who believe that all these ideas of freedom, as Arik Sharon was telling me, have nothing to do with the Middle East, this is the moment to think again. Maybe something was wrong with this idea of keeping these people forever under a control, which was always working against us, because it was the Muslim Brotherhood who were coming after it, whether in Iran, the Palestinian Authority, in Egypt. We hoped to have great peace agreements with all these dictators, but then the dictators who have signed peace agreements will be replaced by Muslim Brothers.

Maybe this is the moment to try to put our trust in freedom. After all, we’re not losing anything. The Muslim Brothers, they’ll come anyway [if things continue as they have been]. Here we have, maybe, the chance that they will not come.

Israel has to be concerned. I don’t want to dismiss all these feelings. All the recent changes have strengthened the fundamentalists...



In Lebanon, Iran, Gaza, Turkey.

We also have to be concerned because our best partners are becoming appeasers.

Elaborate, please.

Europe demands that we negotiate with Hamas. Then they demand that we accept a Lebanese government with 50% Hizbullah. Then it will be fully Hizbullah. And then US leaders can very well say, “Well, for us, engagement with the regime is more important than who is in this regime.”

So, yes, there are reasons for concern. We are a small country. We can be destroyed in one day if we lower our guard. But, on the other hand, while we continue to be on guard, let’s be glad that what’s happening now on the Arab street is happening before the Muslim Brothers control the entire Middle East, and that could be the direction. Let’s be glad that it is happening in countries which are still very dependent on the free world. And let’s try to see whether, finally, we can find new ways for a peace process, and not only a process that depends fully on one thing – on the strength of the IDF.