This week, as rebels rage against the dictator Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, hundreds of thousands rally to oppose Yemen’s autocracy, and others risk their lives to oppose Iran’s mullahs, the Middle East’s future remains uncertain. Dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia have fallen. Will these other regimes fall soon?
It is intriguing to view these events through the prism of the writings of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. In particular, Sharansky’s ideas about free societies and fear societies seem relevant.
Sharansky, who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag for trying to immigrate to Israel, wrote that fear societies, which govern through brutality and repression, are strengthened by appeasement. When free societies tiptoe around dictators and terrorist regimes, the latter are empowered, like schoolyard bullies who demand lunch money – and get it. If no one confronts them or pressures them to respect human rights, their power grows.
While the lunch money comparison is ours, Sharansky’s point was that because dictators have no authentic claim to power, they, like bullies, are internally weak. Appease them, and they are terrifying. Confront them consistently, and they fall – often faster than their fearsome appearance might have suggested.
Remarkably, protestors in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded, with no outside support, in bringing down dictators, which supports Sharansky’s view of dictatorships as weak.
We cannot know who will come to power in Egypt, Tunisia – and other Middle Eastern countries, should those regimes fall. (Remember: Hitler and Hamas were democratically elected.) Sharansky argues that true democracy requires education in democratic principles.
Some recent developments have been troubling. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who used Facebook to help spark Egypt’s revolution and who publicly thanked Facebook’s Jewish-American founder Mark Zuckerberg, was barred from addressing crowds in Tahrir Square by bodyguards for extremist Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. (Al-Qaradawi’s philosophy is in concert with the Muslim Brotherhood, which favors jihadism.)
Some have suggested the United States should recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate diplomatic partner. That is a terrible idea.
President Obama should call a conference of Mideastern moderates and liberals soon. Free people should take a stand while the opportunity exists and not back down to extremists at this pivotal moment.
We should be supporting the Wael Ghonims. Not the Yusuf al-Qaradawis.