Former Refusenik Renews Push for Democratization

By Orly Halpern

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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Jerusalem - President Bush and his foreign policy muse, the onetime Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, are planning a June rendezvous in Prague, at a conference to promote democratic reforms around the world.

Just over two years ago, the newly re-elected Bush was riding a wave of apparent success in his campaign to democratize the Middle East. It was a season known as the “Arab Spring Revolution.” Millions of Iraqis voted in democratic elections. The Lebanese toppled their Syrian-puppet government, ending Syrian occupation of their country. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would allow candidates to run against him.

At the time, Bush pointed to a book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom To Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” as his foreign-policy bible, telling The New York Times it was “part of my presidential DNA.” He invoked it in his second inaugural address in 2005, to which he invited Sharansky, the book’s author. Then an Israeli minister and leader of his own Yisrael B’Aliyah party, Sharansky became Bush’s ideological partner in the drive to change the Arab world.

The tide has since turned. The “Arab Spring Revolution” has lost its momentum, and so has the Bush administration. Tens of Iraqi civilians and American soldiers are killed in Iraq daily. The Lebanese government stands incapacitated by the Islamist extremists of Hezbollah. And crackdowns against human and political rights activists and outspoken bloggers in Syria and Egypt are on the rise.

On a personal level, Bush’s ratings have dropped to below 30%. And while Sharansky’s book sales remain high, his party no longer exists due to lack of public support. Sharansky himself joined the Likud Party, but that too was reduced to just 12 Knesset members in the 2006 Israeli elections. With the steam seemingly gone from the world democratization movement that he helped to start, Sharansky quit politics last November and joined the Shalem Center, a neoconservative academic research center on a quiet street in Jerusalem’s ultra-chic German Colony neighborhood.

In June, however, Bush and Sharansky will meet again for a symbolic relaunching of their campaign. The place will be Prague, a symbolic ground zero of sorts for democratic revolutions, and the venue will be an international Conference for Democracy and Security, which is slated to bring together pro-democracy dissidents from around the world, including the Arab world.

The conference is the maiden venture of the newly created Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center, launched last month with a $4.5 million gift from billionaire Las Vegas hotelier Sheldon Adelson. Sharansky is the institute’s president.

Organizers hope the event will restore the lagging faith of those fighting for democracy and remind Western political leaders of the need to support dissidents. “No matter what has happened in the last two years to give democracy a dirty name, we want the world to know that there are a lot of people who believe that democracy is the only way to go and some people are even risking their lives to bring about non-violent change,” said Vera Golovensky, a longtime Sharansky aide and now director of international relations at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. “That’s why we’re making this conference and highlighting the dissidents.”

Golovensky was quick to emphasize that the center only supports dissidents who are non-violent supporters of change. “Not like Hamas and Hezbollah,” she said.

Golovensky said she saw no contradiction between her doctrine of non-violent change and the war policies of the conference’s most famous guest.

Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, she said, was “someone who was torturing and butchering people. And first of all [the war] was an attempt to free the people. What happened was ultimately a tragedy. But Iraq is a difficult place, there are Kurds, Shi’ites, Sunnis. The only reason [the civil war] didn’t happen before was because Saddam was controlling everything.”

For Sharansky, one of the main organizers, the event will reconfirm his doctrine — as the wording on the invitation makes plain: “The war in Iraq has been widely identified with the doctrine of spreading democracy. As the effort has faltered so, too, has the commitment to spreading democracy. But despite the calls to abandon democracy promotion, the core question remains: is security achievable in the absence of democracy?”

Whoever is willing to come to this event would likely answer no. The risk involved in getting to Prague is not worth arguing with the conference organizers. Out of some 160 confirmed participants “a handful — or more,” organizers say, will be Arab dissidents arriving from Arab states. A few others will likely be from the West.

Zaynab Al-Suwaij, an Iraqi-American who left Iraq after the first Gulf War and now lives in Washington, is one of those planning to attend. She said danger was no reason to decline the invitation.

“People who are out there and want to be activists toward achieving democracy will always be a target — whether at a conference or not,” said Suwaij, who was invited as the executive director of the American Islamic Congress. “In Arabic we have a saying: The person who is wet has no fear of the rain.”

Nevertheless, the public-relations agency handling the event would not give out the names of any of the dissidents arriving from Arab states, with the exception of Mithal al-Alusi, the Iraqi politician whose sons were killed after he attended a conference on terrorism in Israel in 2004. A Forward request for a phone interview with Alusi was denied.

Nor could organizers say which Muslim countries’ dissidents are arriving from, although the press release says there will be representatives from Somalia, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority. Yet it seemed unlikely that at such a media-heavy event the Arab participants would be able to maintain their anonymity.

The conference, touted by its organizers as the “Davos for dissidents,” is meant to bring dissidents in touch with political leaders and academics. Sharansky organized it with former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and former Czech president and onetime pro-democracy dissident Vaclav Havel, and their respective research institutes.

It comes at a difficult time for dissidents, who are increasingly feeling left out in the cold by a Washington administration that said it would not fail them. In his 2005 inaugural address, Bush said, “We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and nation — the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.” Since then the Bush administration has been forced to lower its ambitions and firm up its alliances with regimes that can help maintain stability, even at the cost of overlooking abuses. Idealism has been tempered as realpolitik — some would say reality — has intervened.

“Everyone is backtracking — the Americans, the Europeans,” said an exiled Syrian dissident who was invited to attend the Prague conference. The Syrian, who is applying for political asylum, asked to remain unnamed so as not to endanger his colleagues in Syria.

Accusations against governments violating human and democratic rights are mostly limited to press releases these days, dissidents say. Egyptian bloggers who have faced a wave of arrests for criticizing their undemocratic regime had to be satisfied with a statement from the president — issued by the White House press secretary — condemning their “harassment, physical intimidation and persecution.”

Last month prominent Syrian human rights activist and lawyer Anwar al-Bunni was sentenced to five years in jail. The State Department issued a “Media Note” saying it was “disturbed” by the sentence. A week later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to ask for his country’s help in preventing fighters from entering Iraq.

“As [Western governments] go on in the drive to engage regimes in the name of realism, it’s not simply that the democracy agenda is on the back burner,” said the Syrian dissident invited to the Prague conference. “But there is no interest in even talking about what happened to the activists. They are really being sold out.”

Al-Suwaij, the Iraqi-American, did not know who would attend but said she looked forward to the event. “It’s a great way to meet people and to network with them for future projects on democracy,” she said. “It’s very important to have these connections, especially if you work on these issues in the Muslim world. We need to build a coalition and alliances with people who share the same values.”


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