December 16, 2011

Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and political prisoner in the former Soviet Union, is chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency. He is the author of “The Case for Democracy.”

The results of the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt and the harsh scenes of soldiers beating protesters this weekend have fueled a new round of anxiety in the West over the direction of the Arab Spring. Hopes raised to a fever pitch by the events of January and February have suffered a crushing blow. Observing the victory of the Islamist parties last month, liberals’ miserable showing and the military’s determination to maintain an iron grip, some ask whether the end of Egyptian democracy is already in sight. Others are asking whether democracy, “our” Western heritage, is really for “them.”

These are the wrong questions, and the attitude behind them, if encapsulated in policy, will ensure the return of dictatorship or worse.

This same reflexive attitude long undergirded Western support for Egypt’s dictatorial rulers as the guarantors of “stability.” That support, in turn, helped lay the groundwork for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, suffocating other, better political options. Are we now bent on repeating the same dreary cycle, lending our consent to repression in the name of a false stability?

Consider how unprepared Western governments were for the events of the Arab Spring. They shouldn’t have been. At a 2007 democracy conference in Prague, Egyptians such as Saad Ibrahim, Iraqis such as Mithal al-Alusi and other Arab democratic dissidents assured the participants, including President George W. Bush and other Western statesmen, that their region was ripe for popular revolt. What had happened in the Soviet Union, they said, was already happening in the Middle East: Ordinary people were losing their fear, daring to exercise their long-suppressed faculty to not only speak but also think freely. It was merely a matter of time before the actions of a few would multiply and become, in the end, irrepressible.

The Western officials gathered in Prague loved what they heard from these dissidents. But after they went home, nothing changed in their governments’ policies. The stability model continued to reign and, with it, the rationale that in Egypt there was no alternative but the Muslim Brotherhood or chaos.

The Arab Spring gave the lie to the stability model, which — as the Prague dissidents knew and as millions went on to demonstrate this year — was in fact a recipe for instability. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square the people spoke, and what did they demand? Not the destruction of Israel. Not the damnation of America. They demanded the right to live in a society where minds would no longer be controlled. Their demand was local, but their message was universal.

One Western response to the Egyptian revolution was to back elections. These are far from a bad thing, but they are not the main thing. Thus far, post-Mubarak elections in Egypt have sparked further turmoil, alarm, disillusionment and fatalism among Western observers beguiled by the dream of a democratic triumph. “It’s not the French Revolution,” moaned an Israeli columnist.

This is, inadvertently, an instructive point. For if the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution proves anything, it is that a gap exists between the moment people decide they will no longer live in a society ruled by fear and the moment a democratic society forms — a society that will protect not only “correct” thinking but also the thoughts one hates.

Nothing is instantaneous in politics. To think of elections as a panacea, let alone a sure road to real democracy, is to evince a failure of historical imagination. The proper role of the free world is not to encourage or to stop elections. Its role should be to formulate, and to stick by, a policy of incremental change based on creating the institutions that will lead ineluctably to pressure for more and more representative forms of government. The free world should place its bet on freedom — the hope and demand of Tahrir Square — and work toward a civil society defined by that value.

In executing such a policy, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations would donate funds only to individuals and groups working for the same goal; foster joint business ventures able to contribute to a liberal economy, which are desperately needed in a country on the verge of bankruptcy; encourage bottom-up enterprises in education, media and social reform; and collaborate with students, women’s groups, trade unions, liberal democrats and others pressing the cause of a free press, freedom of religion, the freedom to organize and the rule of law.

Whether, in Egypt’s case, the process will be lengthy or relatively brief depends on the Egyptian people. But it depends no less on the West’s determination to get on the side of those desirous of change, to influence the direction of change and to help shape the emergence of a new generation of leaders. Our choice does not lie between a corrupt military dictatorship and a totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood. If, between Western and Egyptian leaders, at least one of the two parties is wholeheartedly insistent on forging a free civil society, a democratic outcome is a strong possibility; if both parties are against it, all will truly be lost.