As I was watching the carriage transporting the late Václav Havel, the first president of free post-Communist Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, into the Prague Castle I was sobered and deeply moved.
Having been a witness to major world changes spanning from the end of the 20th to the start of the 21st centuries, I was now watching the departure of a giant of his time who happened to be a modest and a shy man leading a small Central European nation.
His words, his life story, and his commitment to liberty have brought hope to many people around the world, far beyond those who speak Czech.
In 1979 I observed the rise of a jihadi regime in Iran under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the 1980s I witnessed the assassinations of President-Elect Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon who fought a heavy Syrian occupation, of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt who ended a war with Israel and signed the Camp David Peace Agreement, and the rise of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who began to spread Glasnost and Perestroika in a disoriented Soviet Union following the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But during that troubled decade when the world was unsure about the future of the Cold War and only vaguely aware of the oppression of millions of citizens trapped behind the Iron Curtain, men and women of extreme courage rose from inside the Red Empire and relentlessly spoke of freedom.
Budapest's uprising happened before I was born (1956). The Prague Spring (1968) bloomed while I was still in the middle school. But I saw the Gdansk strikes of the 1980s in Poland and I admired Lech Walesa, the Catholic worker who stood up to the Soviet bear.
In my weekly newspaper in 1982 I wrote about Solidarity resisting a diktat of the one-party system. As part of the Mediterranean wing of the free world, we knew who the Russian dissidents were; Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov were popular among those who defended freedom in the Middle East.
We related to them as they opposed a superpower, the Soviet Union, which was arming dictatorships in the Arab world — from Iraq and Syria to Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and Algeria.
In 1981, to my astonishment, a French scholar compared my modest writings then to those of a Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eastern European dissidents led the liberation against post-WWII Communist totalitarianism and the Middle Eastern dissidents were supposed to follow suit in the post-Cold War era. However, that did not happen.
In my book "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East" which is said to have predicted the Arab Spring, I attempted to explain why the region’s freedom seekers failed to set in motion their own revolutions at the heel of Bolshevik crumbling (post-1989).
In short, the Arab world has a more lethal oppressor than Eastern Europe had and there are very few leaders who inspire societal change.
Following the life story of one Central European leader, Václav Havel, I am convinced that the Middle East is still in dire need of men and women who would be modest enough, brave enough, and selfless enough to make the necessary changes happen.
Of all the freedom fighters in the Soviet Bloc, I admired Havel the most. A playwright, a poet, and a dissident, Havel was never a career politician but rather a public intellectual who was thrust into politics by the circumstances of his time and place.
As a writer and freedom promoter myself, I related to his life achievements and wish that the Arab region had produced more Havels to lead their own civil societies.
I met the former Czech President Václav Havel at the Prague Conference on International Security and Democracy in June 2007, along with President George W. Bush, the former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, and the former Polish President Lech Walesa.
At that convention, prominent former dissidents from the Soviet Bloc, including Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves and ex-refusenik Natan Sharansky, sat next to the emerging reformers from the Middle East, engineers of the so-called Arab Spring.
Dissidents from Iraq such as MP Mithal Allousi, from Syria such as MP Mamoun Homsi, and from Libya, Egypt, and the Cedar Revolution of Lebanon stood shoulder to shoulder with Iranian students and women in exile.
We were all mesmerized by the mature wisdom of the former Czech president, an ex-detainee in totalitarian prisons, Václav Havel. He addressed us as the new dissidents of the 21st century:
“You have seen us battle against Soviet oppression with our bare hands and words. You can do the same against the region’s dictators,” he said.
He was right — I remember being in disbelief when I witnessed the crumbling of totalitarian regimes in the countries of the Warsaw Pact, one after the other between 1989 and 1991.
After decades of Soviet propaganda and its apologist hydra in the West claiming that the masses in the Eastern Bloc adhered to the Communist ideology and preferred the Leninist and Stalinist systems over liberal and democratic societies, the superpower and its colonies suddenly collapsed without a military confrontation.
They did so thanks to little men and women embodied by Havel: intellectuals who related deeply to their people and never dominated them. They also did not seek to replace Communism with another totalitarian ideology (though some among the East European dissidents did believe in a reformed variant of Communism but this group gradually lost out).
After listening to some of us, who explained how deeply rooted jihadism and its sister ideologies are in the Arab world, Havel understood that the Middle East’s task of liberation would be harder than that of Eastern Europe — not because of the nukes and the tanks of its regimes, but because of the deep roots of the jihadi ideology.
Havel, a lifelong expert on totalitarianism, told the Middle Eastern dissidents that there was no empire more powerful than the Soviet Union. The Soviets, however, crumbled when their ideology was rejected by their own citizens.
As we ponder today’s Arab Spring and as we realize that it is not being won by the dissidents of the region, but instead being seized by totalitarians — the Islamists — we must also understand that it is the task of the Middle Eastern people to collectively reject the extremist ideology in order to achieve lasting freedom in their lands.
The Arab Spring which I projected in my book refers to a broader phenomenon than just the uprisings we’ve witnessed so far in 2011 — it refers also to the struggle which is bound to follow the authoritarian leaders’ fall from grace.
In their early stages, the Arab Spring upheavals resembled those of Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Gdansk (1980), and Yeltsin’s protestors at Moscow’s Red Square. In all these comparative movements, there were real civil society forces pushing against the authoritarians whose seats were at least temporarily rocked.
Similar scenarios could be observed in several Arab countries as well: Mubarak, Bin Ali and Gadhafi even lost power altogether as a result of the revolutions. But what is different from the East European revolutions is the omnipresent jihadi challenge which threatens to intercept the revolts and hijack them.
Arab civil societies’ weakness lies mainly in their lack of reliable leaders of Havel and Walesa type. The West contributes to this leadership vacuum by not lending enough support to those Middle Eastern dissidents who have emerged.
Until a solid rank of civil society leaders exists in the Arab world, revolutions will be botched by totalitarians, wave after wave.
It is important that this week’s departure of a great civil society leader, Václav Havel, serves as a reminder of his extraordinary achievements and that his name remains an inspiration to future leaders of Arab civil societies.
Dr. Walid Phares is the author of "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East." He teaches Global Strategies in Washington, D.C.
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