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Prague, Part III

In addition to the very interesting speeches delivered by President Bush and Senator Lieberman at last week’s Prague Conference on Democracy and Security, there were some noteworthy moments during the panel discussions.

The most touching came during the remarks of Mithal Al-Alusi, a liberal secularist member of the Iraqi legislature. “We are fighting for you in Iraq,” he said, “because what we are fighting against is part of the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizballah axis.” Then he added that Iraqis were aware of and grateful for the losses of American sons and daughters in Iraq: “we have lost children, too.” What he was too dignified to mention was that he, himself, lost two grown sons to terrorists who were attempting to assassinate him after he had attended an anti-terrorism conference in Israel. He has somehow found the strength to continue the struggle to make his country peaceful and free.

The most welcome moment came during the remarks of Egyptian intellectual and leading dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been an advocate of dialogue with Islamists ever since his prolonged jailhouse exchanges with Muslim Brotherhood prisoners during his own long incarceration. Last summer, however, during the war in Lebanon, Ibrahim appeared to veer toward a closer embrace of Islamists, freely granting their democratic bona fides, a position I criticized in COMMENTARY.

In Prague, happily, the old Ibrahim seemed to be back. In addition to fighting the regime, he said, “we are also fighting against the darkness of the theocrats.” He added that because Arab democrats have to fight “both of these enemies,” they were up against a problem that “dissidents in other regions don’t face.”

Despite this problem, Ibrahim was hopeful. In Egypt’s most recent People’s Assembly election, the “autocrats” (i.e., the ruling National Democratic Party) won 19 percent of the vote; the “theocrats” (i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood) won 4 percent; while 77 percent of the electorate did not vote. This “silent majority,” he argued, cared for neither the autocrats nor theocrats. In America we know that the non-voters usually differ little in their preferences from those who make it to the polls. But in Egypt, who knows?

Finally, I continued a long-running debate with Martin Kramer, of the Washington Institute, about democracy and the Arabs. (I am a democratic universalist, while Kramer takes a view more common among Israelis, who fear that free voting among Arabs will only stoke radicalism.) In Prague, Kramer coined a useful term—“consensual authoritarianism.” He was alluding, I inferred, to Egypt and the various monarchies of Jordan, Morocco, and the rest of the Persian Gulf, all of them stable and moderate, and almost none of them viciously tyrannical. My response was that to encourage the overthrow of these regimes would indeed be counterproductive. Rather, we should press them to democratize at a measured pace.

But in the region’s trouble spots, the very places where democratization efforts have come in for most criticism, there is and was no “consensual authoritarian” option. Could we have installed a dictator in Iraq instead of trying to build democracy? Perhaps, but every one of the problems dogging us there today would be worse. In Lebanon or Afghanistan, would the installation of dictators have caused less or more resistance than the current governments are facing? The answer is obvious. And what about the Palestinian territories? There, we did in fact help install a “consensual authoritarian.” His name was Yassir Arafat. And he is more responsible than any other person for the sorry state in which America, Israel, and the Palestinians now find themselves.

Just as I conceded part of Kramer’s point, he, I believe, conceded part of mine. No doubt, our debate will continue.


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