April 19, 2011


The Stakes in the Middle East (NATAN SHARANSKY, Spring 2011, Jewish Review of Books)

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. [...]

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.

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Posted by at April 19, 2011 6:30 AM

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