A Surprising Guide to Democracy in the Middle East

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To understand the tumultuous upheaval in the Middle East in 2011, let me recommend a brilliant but admittedly surprising and even unlikely book that forecasted how events in the region might unfold and now provides a coherent approach to shaping the outcome of the turmoil. It is The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, by Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer, published by PublicAffairs in 2004. The message of the book is that autocracies the world over will fall when people are no longer afraid to demand freedom, which Sharansky defines as the right to stand in the "town square" and advocate openly for democratic reforms. This leads to the creation of institutions that reflect popular will and culminates, in the best of circumstances, in elections that are a true expression of political choice.

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PublicAffairs

Re-reading the book and interviews that Sharansky has given recently (especially this one in the Jerusalem Post), I have been amazed at the prescience of his analysis and its relevance to events in North Africa and the Arab world. The book is an unlikely guide because Sharansky seems in so many ways the antithesis of where the Muslim protestors would turn for inspiration. Sharansky was an activist and spokesman for the dissident movement in the Soviet Union in the 1970s when I met him. He began as a "refusenik," meaning his application to emigrate to Israel had been rejected. But he eventually expanded his role in Moscow to reflect the broader objectives of Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was the philosophical leader of the pro-democracy movement in the Soviet Union.

Sharansky was arrested in 1977 and spent nine years in prison before being released in the early stages of Mikhail Gorbachev's reform of the Soviet empire. In Israel, Sharansky eventually launched a political career that took him to the center of power, but ended largely, in my view, because of his adamant adherence to principles that he had embraced while in the Soviet Union. Continuing the constant call for democratic reform that proved so pivotal in the fall of the Soviet system, Sharansky argued that the key to peace with Israel's adversaries was to insist on their commitment to genuine democracy with measurable guarantees. In Israeli politics and among supporters elsewhere of the "peace process" with Palestine, Sharansky's refusal to accept compromise and agreements like the 1993 Oslo accords seemed to place him among the most right-wing of Israel's politicians. But his underlying conviction was that deals with regional potentates and dictators were ultimately hollow and would never lead to peace. Opposing the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza (which as he predicted led to chaos and bloodshed), Sharansky resigned from the Knesset and today is chairman of the Jewish Agency, which encourages immigration to Israel by Jews abroad and coordinates social programs with international support.

When we spoke last week, I could sense the excitement Sharansky felt about events in the region. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, the town square metaphor has played out with stunning accuracy. Even in Libya, protestors are drawn to central venues where they can make their voices heard, at least until mayhem ensues. When The Case for Democracy was first published, a friend sent it to George W. Bush, who embraced it as a basis for his Freedom Agenda and called it "a great book." But the impact of the Bush approach imploded as elections throughout the Middle East failed, each in its own way, to achieve peace or democratic goals. The situation now, in Sharansky's view, creates an extraordinary new opportunity in the region as events are ignited by indigenous factors rather than outside intervention, creating the basis for a historic reinvention comparable to what happened as the Soviet and East European autocracies crumbled in 1989. In the most optimistic scenario--and these are my words, not Sharansky's--Israel could finally achieve a secure place among its neighbors, ending the successive crises thathave made it an increasingly defensive society and undermined its standing as a pillar of human rights and open society.

So what does Sharansky think will work now? The indispensible ingredient that has taken the pro-democracy revolutions this far has been the populations' overcoming of fear and what he calls "double-think," essentially professing support of the status quo while knowing that it was fundamentally wrong, Going forward, he contends, the United States (and the rest of the democratic world) should activate the "linkage" policies he associates with Western successes in the Cold War: a direct connection between political and financial support with meaningful democratic reforms and the development of institutions that consolidate the "town square" objectives of freedom of expression in the broadest sense. Based on the history of the Bush years (and much of what has happened in countries of the former Soviet Union), only when these conditions are fully established can elections bring about true fulfillment of popular will and long-term democratic change.

The months ahead in all the countries now in turmoil will be immensely complicated, with the certainty of setbacks and frustrations as well as progress. The history of post-Soviet Russia shows how autocrats and oligarchs can suppress the justice system and create faux democracies. Nonetheless, what impresses me most about The Case for Democracy is that it reflects Sharansky's experience and years of struggle rather than a theoretical argument. Through this distinct and, in so many ways, vindicated perspective, Sharansky's vision about "the power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror" can be made a reality.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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