Making Sense of a Rightwing Israeli Institute’s Ambivalent View of Arab Democracy
By Maidhc Ó Cathail
The Passionate Attachment
June 19, 2012
In the Autumn 2006 issue of its journal, Azure, the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center published an essay by Israeli academic Uriya Shavit entitled “The Road to Democracy in the Arab World.” Sketching the outlines of a new “American” doctrine for democracy promotion in the Middle East, Shavit wrote:
By far the most crucial adjustment the new doctrine must make, however, is the unequivocal public acknowledgment of the possibility that free elections may bring to power forces antagonistic to the West.
Without such an acknowledgment, the Arab world will never take the American democratization initiative at face value. Referring to the war in Iraq, many Arab intellectuals have expressed the concern that if the United States has to choose between a tyranny led by a pro-Western leader or an Islamic democracy, it will choose the former. This view is based, for example, on events in Algeria in the early 1990s: The Algerian government cancelled the parliamentary elections in which a victory by the militant Islamic Salvation Front was imminent, with tacit American approval.
Were most Arab countries to hold free elections, Islamist parties would consistently win the majority of votes. This is the expected outcome in both Egypt and Jordan, should free elections be held, and in Syria the Muslim Brotherhood would almost certainly become the largest party, even if it did not win an absolute majority. (emphasis added)
By Autumn 2011, with a number of Arab countries apparently on the road to the Islamist democracy he had predicted, Shavit appears to have changed his views somewhat. In another essay in Azure entitled “Islamotopia: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Idea of Democracy,” he argues that “liberty can’t withstand the political rule of the Koran.” Shavit’s advice for the West:
At the very least, however, it must make plain what it holds to be the essence of democracy, why the political ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood are incompatible with it, and, thus, why it cannot offer economic or diplomatic support to Arab states that follow the path of political Islam. (emphasis added)
Was this the outcome Natan Sharansky, then director of the Shalem Center’s Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies and current head of the Jewish Agency, hoped for when he organized a “Democracy and Security” conference in Prague? One year after the publication of Shavit’s doctrine for democracy promotion in the Middle East, Sharansky brought together
right wing Israelis; their American neoconservative sympathizers, with their favourite Middle Eastern dissidents in tow—most notably, Richard Perle’s Israel-admiring Syrian protégé Farid Ghadry; and the newly-installed Eastern European democrats swept to power in the wake of a wave of neocon-backed “color revolutions,” the latter group presumably serving to inspire the Arab and Iranian participants to emulate them.
Among the participants was Peter Ackerman, then chairman of Freedom House, who would go on to play a key role in preparing the ground for the Arab uprisings of 2011. As the New York Times reported on February 16 last year:
When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr. [Gene] Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to “protest disrobing” to “disclosing identities of secret agents.”
Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said that some activists translated excerpts of Mr. Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of “attacking weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.
Peter Ackerman, a onetime student of Mr. Sharp who founded the nonviolence center and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that “ideas have power.”
No doubt his fellow revolutionaries at the Shalem Center would agree.