Sharansky: The link between Egypt and freedom
The time has come, Natan Sharansky says, for the leaders of the free world to link their cooperation and their demand for democratic reforms to their aid to countries like Egypt. Currently, the U.S. provides Egypt with almost $2 billion a year in aid.
This moment in time is incredibly pivotal because, as the famous former Soviet dissident said in a phone interview, “from the years of Laurence of Arabia, the free world has been supporting the dictators and supporting the squashing of any democratic movement.”
In his speech yesterday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he will not listen to any outside demands though. Instead, he will hand over his powers — he has held power for 30 years — to Vice President Omar Sulemain. How much of his powers and which powers will be transferred was not stated.
Mubarak did say that six articles of the constitution will be amended including those that say who can run for president and for how long the president can hold power. Mubarak was very clear that no matter what type of government takes shape, he wants it to be protected by the army. Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt today.
Sharansky, who became a prominent politician in Israel after his release from a Soviet prison, thinks that real democratic dissidents like Saad Eddin Ibrahim should be empowered. And despite what Mubarak said about not listening to any outside demands, Sharansky thinks that if America wants to remain a leader in the free world, it needs to show a strong sense of leadership.
“The leadership of Reagan played a crucial role in the end of communist dictatorships,” said Sharansky.
Sharansky feels so strongly about this because it was 25 years ago today that he won his freedom with the great support of President Reagan, who, in Sharansky’s eyes, led America and Europe to oppose a policy of appeasement of dictators.
The day Sharansky was released from prison in 1986, he emigrated to Israel, where he has lived ever since. There, he became politically active as well. In 1988, he was elected president of an organization of former Soviet activists, the Zionist Forum. Eight years later he founded the political party Yisrael B’Aliya, which he represented in the Knesset until 2003. During that time period Sharansky held other ministerial positions in the government until 2005. Now he serves as the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife.
“Speaking from experience, I’m deeply disappointed to hear how quickly the free world can forget about the lessons of its own success and ignore its lessons.”
The point right now for Sharansky is what the leaders of the free world will do.
“It is very important what the conditions of the agreement [between the leaders of the free world and Egypt] will be,” Sharansky says.
“What is really happening is a moment of unique opportunities — whether these opportunities will be used or not, depends more on the leaders of the free world,” Sharansky said. “What was happening for the last 100 years was a peace pact between leaders of the free world and leaders of the Arab world. Now we should come to them [leaders of the Arab world] with our values.”
While Sharansky was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1986, he has not stopped speaking out for world-wide freedom. In the Arab world, he notes, there are very few examples of free countries.
“Obama’s statements are doing much better than statements made about the Iranian revolution, but what we need now are specific steps — not just rhetoric, but specific steps linked to economic cooperation.”
“It is important for the president to have a position of moral clarity and strength and democratic reforms.”
Obama’s heart is in the right place, Sharansky said, but he thinks, in general, the leaders of the free world, time and again, demonstrate the lack of belief in the power of the freedom agenda and the lack of belief that people have enough desire not to live under a dictatorship.
“They are always afraid that the only alternative to dictatorship is Islamic fundamentalists,” Sharansky said. “They think by not supporting the leaders of the Arab world, it supports Islamic fundamentalists.”
Sharansky holds out hope though. After all, he has been living in freedom in Israel since 1986. And he thinks America is still a place full of hope.
“If Obama follows in the steps of President Reagan it could be a great present to everyone who believes in democracy and freedom,” Sharansky says.
Born in the Ukraine in 1948, Sharansky, famous for speaking out against the Soviet government, was accused of treason and espionage by Soviet authorities in 1977.
This February 11th will be quite a different one for the man who spent nine years in a Soviet Gulag. Instead, Sharansky will use this day to talk about the celebration of freedom with his two recent grandchildren.
“We are going to have a Passover Seder,” Sharansky said. “I’m going to sit at the table with my grandchildren — two daughters brought two boys — and they are going to ask me questions about those years [in prison].”
Sharansky’s wife, whom he was separated from for 12 years and who never stopped fighting for his freedom while he was in jail, and his two daughters will be there as well. He said that for the Seder he will wear the yarmulke that was knit from a foot bandage by his cellmate in prison. It is only one of two times that he wears this particular yarmulke.
In 2005, Sharansky perhaps became even more famous when President George W. Bush praised his book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Freedom and Terror.” In the book Sharansky talks about the three different groups of people who form under a dictatorship: true believers – those who agree with the dictatorship, which aren’t many Sharansky notes, double thinkers — those who don’t believe in the ideology but don’t say what’s on their mind, and dissidents — those that don’t agree with their government, speak their mind and are willing to go to jail for it.
“People under dictatorship become double thinkers,” Sharansky said. “All of the people on the streets in Egypt are the double thinkers who are not ready to live under a dictatorship forever.”
Editor’s note: The piece has been updated to correct the spelling of Natan Sharansky’s last name. Earlier versions of the piece misspelled his last name in some places.