Trust the dissidents, not the diplomats

Men walk through a damaged area after what activists said were at least 20 air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighbourhood of Damascus February 5, 2015. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)
Men walk through a damaged area after what activists said were at least 20 air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighbourhood of Damascus February 5, 2015. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

Recently leaders of the free world flocked to Saudi Arabia to meet with the new king , where they praised the country as a partner for peace and center of stability. But many dissidents disagreed. As Mansour Al-Hadj, a liberal activist who lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years, said: “Saudi Arabia is not stable. Deep down, people are not happy. Sooner or later, the winds of change will come to Saudi Arabia. The regime will fall.”

If history is any judge, the world should bet on the dissidents, not the diplomats.

On Jan. 25, 2011, just two weeks before the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her assessment “that the Egyptian government is stable.” That March, Clinton’s successor, John F. Kerry, praised “good-faith” measures taken by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and predicted that his regime would change for the better “as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West.”

Clinton and Kerry were certainly not alone in assessing that these dictators were securely in power. Former Amnesty International USA executive director Larry Cox later said that “nobody that I know of predicted it, no experts, no pundits, no politicians saw the revolution coming.”

After the Arab Spring, many of the same experts and policymakers who had insisted that the region was stable claimed that no one could have foreseen the uprisings. But this is untrue. A chorus of uniquely insightful individuals predicted exactly what would happen: the democratic dissidents who languished in prison cells in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt.

Witnesses to unimaginable injustice, these men and women felt viscerally that the dictators’ days were limited. They were the soldiers on the front line of the historical drama about to unfold. The experts simply chose not to listen.

In 2006, for example, from the depths of his torture chamber, Syrian dissident Kamal Labwani — jailed for a decade under the Assad regime — predicted that without democratic change, Syria would end up in a situation “no less terrifying than what happened in Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia.” He presaged the rise of radicalism, arguing that “the alternative to democracy is inevitably civil war and fundamentalism.”

Likewise, in 2007, from his prison cell in Egypt, blogger Kareem Amer declared to the region’s tyrants and authoritarians that their “attempts to shut our mouths and restrict our freedom” would eventually fail. “You should be very worried about us,” he wrote. “Your days are numbered and your dark nights are approaching their end.”

There were many such prophetic voices, dissidents who foresaw what would happen in their countries but whose warnings fell on deaf ears abroad. What did they know or understand that our experts and leaders did not? The answer is the power of inner freedom. Having crossed the line from living in fear to questioning and then actively fighting against their regimes, dissidents know how difficult it is to suppress the longing to live freely. As more of their fellow citizens cross this line, dissidents see how much additional energy the regime has to expend to keep its population in check. As Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik observed, any system that has to spend all of its energy controlling the thoughts of its citizens must break down eventually.

Anyone who remembers the fall of the Soviet Union ought to understand the importance of listening to dissidents. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s and until the last days of the Evil Empire, leading Western politicians and Sovietologists repeatedly diagnosed the regime as stable. In 1992, then-CIA Director Robert M. Gates admitted that it was not until 1989 that the intelligence agency began to think that the Soviet Union might collapse. Amalrik, by contrast, had predicted this years earlier, in his aptly titled 1969 book, “Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?” He, together with generations of Soviet dissidents led by Andrei Sakharov, paid a heavy price for explaining to the West that the regime’s downfall was inevitable.

Those dissidents were admired, loved and even defended, but they were not listened to. Western experts, blinded by the power of Soviet weapons and the delusory self-confidence of Soviet parades and leaders, dismissed their predictions. Thus, when Mikhail Gorbachev began dismantling the Soviet system and the dissidents’ prophecies came true, these same experts were caught by surprise.

Only a few decades later, the leaders of the free world have all but forgotten this lesson. If they had listened more closely to the Middle East’s dissidents, they might have been better prepared for the 2011 revolutions. Perhaps they would have spent less money arming and funding dictators and more time supporting moderates in their quest for civil society and freedom.

To make matters worse, today we are witnessing a full-fledged return to the policy of supporting dictators. The White House has all but dropped the demand that Assad step down, hinting that he could be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State. U.S. and European diplomats are pursuing deals with the Iranian regime and regard Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as a bulwark of stability. The new Saudi king has been touted as a robust ally.

There may be tactical advantages to partnering with these regimes against the growing threat of fundamentalist terror. But we must not ignore the insights of dissidents who remind us that dictators are not our strategic allies and are certainly not guarantors of long-term stability.

The current propensity to neglect dissidents and prop up dictators guarantees that there will be many more surprises in the Middle East. When coups and revolutions once again upend the region, our experts will surely ask: “But who could have seen it coming?”

Natan Sharansky is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. David Keyes is executive director of Advancing Human Rights.

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