A dissident's manual for democracy

Condoleezza Rice has been in the Middle East this week, trying to figure out how she, Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon can bring about a free, democratic Palestinian state.

Drawing a consistent picture may prove hard for Ms Rice. President George W. Bush has said that his plan to democratise the Middle East was inspired by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and now Israeli politician. Indeed, Mr Bush has made Mr Sharansky's recent book, The Case for Democracy, his own Middle East Bible.* Yet, many of the steps the US has taken over the years - and even those Mr Bush has taken recently - seem to go against the Sharansky principles. Mr Sharansky's thoughts have been in the news before. But they are worth review. They shed light both on the past and on current challenges.

Mr Sharansky is the former Anatoly Scharansky, the Soviet dissident who spent so many years in solitary confinement protesting against the communist regime. In his book and before, Mr Sharansky has argued that the Soviet experience applies to the Middle East - that toppling dictators comes first, for dictators create "fear societies" that survive by terrifying their citizens. "Fear societies" are also inherently belligerent. Other nations therefore must recognise that conciliation cannot work. They must instead link any peace process to the expansion of freedom within the nation, and listen to the domestic population rather than its leaders. They should do this no matter how few the number of dissidents. Any other policy lengthens the reign of the dictator and his sway over puppet regimes nearby.

What is more, in the Sharansky view, the expansion of freedom must be an extended process. Early elections can be fatal, sustaining dictatorship rather than bringing freedom. Before elections, the rule of law must be established as well as free media and some sense of civil society. Only when the fear society is dead can elections institutionalise freedom. Then they will inspire the people of other countries to move towards liberty, as they did in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mr Sharansky has long been confident that his formula will "work anywhere around the globe, including in the Arab world".

Mr Sharansky has been mocked as naive but his theories look plausible. Consider the old Oslo project. The 1993 accord between Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli prime minister, and Yassir Arafat was signed with such hope. Yet instead of liberating Palestinians, it funded another decade of corruption and violence in the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, at the end, Mr Sharansky concludes, "there was less freedom and more fear within Palestinian society than before Oslo began".

In 2002, Mr Sharansky laid these thoughts out in an audience with Vice President Dick Cheney. Shortly thereafter, the president appeared in the Rose Garden to announce he would interact only with a Palestinian Authority that was not "tainted by terror". Mr Bush also said that he wanted democratic government. He made it clear Arafat would not do as an interlocutor and stuck to that position.

And what about now? According to the Sharansky rules, it is right to put pressure on Egypt to change - as the president did in his State of the Union address. The same holds for Mr Bush's efforts to bring more democracy to Saudi Arabia - so different from the actions of George H.W. Bush, his father. According to Sharansky philosophy, it likewise makes sense to be hard on Iran. The old Soviet regime had a formidable nuclear arsenal, yet in the end gave in.

But the Sharansky rules also tell us that the US engagement with Pakistan, hardly a model of democracy, is wrong. As for the Afghan elections, they may have come too early. Iraq's perhaps as well. And the new Palestinian Administration? The Sharansky rules say it was wrong of the US to endorse the Palestinian elections following Arafat's death-they were taking place too soon. It was too early to elect a new president; first there should have been a clearer break with the old tolerance of terror. And to pour another $350m in aid into his administration this early, as Mr Bush has just promised, may be to repeat Oslo's error.

It is also possible, however, to make a more hopeful evaluation, even using a Soviet model. For 2005 may be more like 1989 than it is like 1993. Right now, just as in 1989, there appears to be a democratic momentum. Seeing Saddam ousted inspired citizens in Afghanistan to embrace democracy. Seeing Afghans vote inspired the world - including Ukrainians who, in the face of great risk, moved towards genuine freedom. The sight of president-elect Viktor Yushchenko taking office, still blue from being poisoned by agents of the old Ukrainian "state of fear", may in turn have inspired Iraqis as they voted. So, hearing Mr Bush hail the Iraqis might in its turn inspire Palestinians to turn away from their focus on protest.

The Middle East is still an enormous challenge. But now that the dissidents and democrats know that progress is possible, it may come faster than we think.

*'The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror', Natan Sharansky and Ron Dermer, Public Affairs Books

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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