Inter Press Service
With then-U.S. President George W. Bush's endorsement of his book, Natan Sharanky, the Ukrainian Soviet dissident turned Likud politician in Israel, rose to super-stardom in the world of democracy promotion.
However, as Egyptians took to the streets demanding democratic reforms, Sharansky remained silent. The Likud government in Israel issued perhaps the most public reservations about the nascent protest movement. As neoconservative commentator Judith Miller put it, Israel was embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's "one serious ally left in the Middle East".
Now, in a lengthy weekend interview with David Feith in the Wall Street Journal, Sharansky came out with a prescription: Oust Mubarak and divert a sizable chunk – 20 percent – of the U.S.'s 1.5 billion dollars in annual aid to Egypt to institution-building ahead of the scheduled September election.
However, "free, developed institutions" – conditions for free elections – "will not be developed by September", Sharansky told Feith. He said that if, after its imperfect elections, Egypt turns away from democratic principles, all aid should be cut off.
Sharansky made a running comparison between Egypt's evolving immediate future and elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) held in the occupied territories in 2006.
The militant Islamist movement Hamas won the elections, which, according to international monitors, were free and fair. But the U.S. and Israel immediately acted to squelch a government that would include Hamas, leading eventually to Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip and its rival Fatah claiming the West Bank.
Sharansky doesn't think an "electoral coup", as Feith put it, by the non-violent Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood is likely, but he warned that continuing to support dictatorship in Egypt could bolster the Brotherhood's position.
"This revolt happened when the Muslim brothers are not as strong as Hamas was," said Sharansky, suggesting that democrats should be "happy" about the timing of Egypt's impending elections as compared to the 2006 PLC polls.
"The U.S. and Israel immediately launched a vicious campaign against Hamas and against it having even that degree of indirect influence over the PLC," said Helena Cobban, a publisher and analyst who has observed the full spectrum of the Palestinian polity for decades.
Cobban pointed to early threats against Palestinian politicians and an article by David Rose in Vanity Fair exposing a U.S.-backed violent coup plan against Hamas's government in 2007. The plan touched off a Palestinian civil war that geographically cleaved the Palestinian Authority.
The campaign continued, Cobban said, with the ongoing blockade of Gaza and the Winter 2008-2009 Israeli war on the Strip.
Feith paraphrased Sharansky's comparison and warning thusly: "What shouldn't happen is a repeat of the 2006 election in Gaza, when Hamas won office without demonstrating any commitment to democracy, and Palestinian society had no checks in place to prevent the outcome from being one man, one vote, one time."
But the West never gave Hamas a chance to govern, let alone hold a second round of elections. The Fatah PA has canceled several subsequent elections at various levels of government, vowing recently to hold a vote for municipal positions.
On Egypt, Sharansky acknowledged that the hesitance about democracy stems from the Brotherhood's potential role in politics: "Why is there such a big danger that if now there will be free choice for Egyptians, then the Muslim Brotherhood can rise to power? Because they are the only organized force which exists in addition to Mubarak's regime."
In the New York Times on Saturday, anonymous administration officials acknowledged that they had to be prepared for the Muslim Brotherhood to play a role.
"Obama officials say that the United States cannot rule out the possibility of engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood…at the same time that it is espousing support for a democratic Egypt," wrote Helene Cooper and Mark Landler. "If Egyptians are allowed free and fair elections, a goal of the Obama administration, then, administration officials say, they will have to deal with the real possibility that an Egyptian government might include members of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently laid down generalised Shransky-esque goals for Egyptian politics: "We obviously want to see people who are truly committed to democracy, not imposing any ideology on Egyptians."
However, even members of the U.S. Congress from President Barack Obama's own Democratic Party have called for the Brotherhood to be excluded altogether.
"It's a very small group within Egypt, but it's a group that has supported terrorists," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Washington's NPR station. The U.S. does not designate the Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organisation.
"It's a group that is opposed to the peace process, and it's a group that the United States – I think, the region and the international community has a legitimate right to say should it be – should have no part in the governance of Egypt," Cardin continued.
"If there are foundational ground rules and credible institutions then I see no barrier to their inclusion," said Michael W. Hanna, an analyst with the Century Foundation. "Not liking them and their ideas is not a credible standard upon which to base decisions of political inclusion."
The Brotherhood, which was banned but tolerated under Mubarak, has participated in demonstrations but not taken a leading role. The group has hinted that former U.N. atomic agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei, a secular liberal, could negotiate with the government on behalf of disparate opposition groups.
But Shadi Hamid, a scholar with the Brookings Institution based in Doha, Qatar, said that the issue of political Islam in Egypt might be a tempest in a chai-pot.
"The 'Islamist dilemma' is less of a dilemma than we think," he wrote on the website of Foreign Policy magazine. "After all, there's no real reason to think the Muslim Brotherhood will take the reins of Egyptian foreign policy anytime soon."