Across the globe, from Tunisia to Burma, people are struggling to cast off tyrannical regimes. It is humbling to witness what thousands are willing to risk for a chance at democracy in the countries of the Middle East. At the same time, there is a real danger that the advent of majority rule in places such as Egypt and Syria will bring new tyrannies, especially the oppression of minority groups.
In Syria, the small Christian and Alawite communities continue to support the bloody-minded Assad regime, fearing that the Sunni majority now rebelling against forty years of brutal repression will return the favor once in power. Coptic Christians in Egypt, long protected by the now deposed Hosni Mubarak, look with grave apprehension at the possibility of a government dominated by Islamist parties eager to impose sharia law. Factionalism in Libya after the ouster and death of Muammar Qaddafi may yet degenerate into civil war, while sectarian animosities threaten the fragile democracy in Iraq.
U.S. policy in the region has evolved in response to facts on the ground. Israel’s security continues to be a prime concern, but the U.S. effort to isolate Iran, using every tool short of military force to deter the mullahs from building nuclear weapons, also reassures the Saudis and Egyptians. Where the United States could encourage democratic aspirations without jeopardizing vital America interests in Libya, Egypt, and Syria, it has done so. Where U.S. geopolitical and economic interests are understood to trump the push for democracy, as in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the Obama administration has remained conspicuously on the sidelines. This is what governments usually do, and at least arguably what they sometimes must do. But that doesn’t mean it is all a government can ever do, or all that individual Americans should do now.
The courageous Czech dissident Vaclav Havel died in December, and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels offers a tribute to him in this issue. Havel’s powerful moral vision concerning “the power of the powerless,” and his determination to resist his Communist overlords by “living in truth,” has inspired the actions of countless political dissidents around the world. That the witness of Havel and others helped to bring down the Soviet Union with barely a shot being fired still seems like a kind of miracle.
The beleaguered advocates of liberal democracy in places such as Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq should be heartened by Havel’s example. The road to freedom in Eastern Europe was a long one. As early as 1968 the Czechs had glimmerings of a “Prague Spring,” only to be brutally crushed by Warsaw Pact troops. In the aftermath, Havel stood up to his oppressors using little more than his writing. In 1977 he organized and helped write Charter 77, a denunciation of the Communist regime, and managed to get more than two hundred supporters to join his protest. The punishment was months in prison. When released, he continued to defy the authorities. Again he was sent to prison. Sentenced to five years, he was released in 1983 because of poor health. When he was sent to prison yet again in 1989 the public outcry forced the regime to release him. In less than a year, he would become president of a democratic Czechoslovakia.
Dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union looked for moral support from the West, and it was forthcoming from groups across the ideological spectrum. In fact, because of the strict censorship imposed by the Communist regime, Havel’s work was probably better known outside Czechoslovakia. In response, letters were written, petitions signed, protests staged in Europe and the United States on behalf of Havel and many others. Such acts of solidarity made a difference, and they can make a difference for the nascent liberal and democratic movements in the Middle East. To be sure, it is not clear what kind of democracy the most powerful and best-organized forces of rebellion in the region are hoping to establish. How Islam will shape any new democracy in any particular country remains to be seen. But as the “revolution” in Cairo’s Tahrir Square showed, there are tens of thousands in the Middle East who prize liberal freedoms and institutions. Where this movement can be aided publicly without endangering its advocates, the U.S. government and private groups should speak up loudly and often. Where support needs to be discreet, prudence should prevail. What is crucial is that those working for democracy know that their voices are being heard and echoed in the West. It may take a lifetime, or two, before real political freedom comes to the people of the Middle East, but as Havel’s story reminds us, miracles do happen.