Cultivating democracy, Reagan- and Sharansky-style

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-8-11

Photo by: Ronald Reagan Library/White House photo
Israelis usually know notFormer US president Ronald Reagan and Sharansky to let fear of the future cloud the present. All peace-loving democrats should celebrate the potential inherent in Egypt’s popular uprising. As the ones who taught the world about going from slavery to freedom by leaving ancient Egypt, Jews would love to see modern Egypt teach the Arab world about going from enslavement under dictators to the freedom that flourishes in peaceful, popular democracies.

Democracy is delicious. Those who enjoy civil rights, live in states that empower the people, see leaders rotated regularly, and have no secret police to fear should never take this miracle for granted. And we should welcome those who try to join our privileged club.

THIS WEEK, two anniversaries remind us of the essential link between freedom and democracy. February 6 marked the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth.

When many intellectuals were too dazzled by communism to recognize its crimes, Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. Shocked, one leading American historian labeled his 1983 address the worst presidential speech ever. Reagan never understood how people so smart could be so dumb – and arrogant – as to assume that people suffering under communism did not yearn for freedom.

As president, Reagan helped free another freedom fighter, Natan Sharansky, from the gulag 25 years ago, on February 11, 1986. While Reagan faced condescending professors, Sharansky had to resist the KGB. These days, when many criticize Israel for being too worried about its peace with Egypt to cheer the democratic revolution, the world should remember that since 1986, Natan Sharansky has been preaching, from Israel, that Arabs deserve democracy – defying the conventional wisdom even as it mocks him, George W.

Bush and others for demanding that.

Not surprisingly, today, when historical memories get wiped out with a click of the ‘refresh’ button, Israel’s critics are busy rewriting history. The bash-Israel crowd, dismayed that those pesky Arabs again had other concerns beyond the Palestinians, nevertheless used the Egyptian crisis to attack Israel. Now they criticize it for making peace with dictators – as if it could choose some democratic Egyptian leader as a peace partner.

Turn back the clock three decades. Had Israel rejected the media darling Anwar Sadat because he was a dictator, the world would have condemned it. Today, these critics want Israel to make peace with Mahmoud Abbas – another aging autocrat – and the deadly dictators of Hamas. Yitzhak Rabin’s realist teaching that you only make peace with your enemies has an unspoken Middle East corollary – where strongmen reign, you can only make peace with dictators, although not with those who promise to obliterate you.

The media herd has missed another inconvenient nuance, failing to understand that popular is not necessarily democratic. The New York Times ran one article after another reading like Muslim Brotherhood press releases. On February 4, Nicholas Kulish’s Valentine claimed that the Brotherhood’s “actual members… come across as civic-minded people of faith.”

Roger Cohen gushed that “the Middle East has evolved…

Islamic parties can run thriving economies and democracies like Turkey’s,” adding gratuitously and disproportionately: “Democracies can coexist with politically-organized religious extremists, as Israel itself demonstrates.”

Apparently, these cheerleaders have never read the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna’s harsh exhortations to “prepare for jihad, and be lovers of death.” These deluded democrats overlook the Brotherhood’s Nazi roots, which produced Hamas terrorists, not Turkish economists. And perhaps most important of all, these simpletons have overlooked democracy’s essential foundations.

Yes, democracy involves not having dictators. And yes, democracy can arise after popular revolts. But even orderly elections can spawn dictators and demagogues, violent societies and civil-rights violators. Civil society’s gossamer threads must restrain government’s blunt power. Citizens in a democracy need basic rights, essential protections and fundamental dignity, not just an occasional trip to a voting booth.

IN GRADUATE school, we debated whether colonial America’s fluidity, mobility and prosperity – unlike Europe’s feudal rigidity – nurtured its democracy. I learned then – and we learned again from watching disasters in Gaza and elsewhere – that you don’t build democracy from the (headless) top down, you build it from the ground up.

Ronald Reagan understood this when he funded institutions like the Voice of America to cultivate a vibrant political culture of openness, tolerance and dissent in communist lands. Natan Sharansky understood this when he championed building factories and investing in Gaza and the West Bank, even as Palestinian terrorists murdered Israelis. Even many Islamist groups understand this when they woo the masses by feeding, teaching and employing them before recruiting them.

Unfortunately, elite American reporters do not seem to grasp this concept, with their suddenly impatient calls for immediate change and their inability to see that democracy must be groomed and grown. In the musical South Pacific, set during World War II, the wise Emile de Becque asks a hotheaded American sailor: “I know what you’re against. What are you for?” We know the Egyptian rebels are against Hosni Mubarak, but what are they for? Are they for women’s rights, gay rights, Jews’ rights, Coptic Christians’ rights, human rights? Are they for allowing different ideas to flourish, for listening to their opponents, for resolving conflicts peacefully, for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Are they for establishing a prosperous, stable middle-class so democracy can flourish? Are they for a new democracy built citizen by citizen, institution by institution, social good by social good? Rather than being paralyzed by fear or naively deluded, Israel, America and the world should do whatever is possible to plant the necessary democratic seeds, so the answers become “yes,” even “yes we can.”

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

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