Former Dissident Advocates Middle East Democracy

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Demonstrations have continued to shake dictatorships from Libya to Yemen. Will these protests ultimately lead to democracy or even more tyranny?

"I feel very good about what's happening," said former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky spent nine years behind bars for opposing tyranny in the former Soviet Union. His imprisonment made him a universal symbol for those oppressed under dictatorships.

"We have to understand that this revolt in Arab streets against dictators is something natural. Something that will inevitably happen," he said. "No dictatorship can keep the people under control all the time."

Since his release in 1986, Sharansky has championed democracy and spread his views through his influential book The Case for Democracy. For too long, he said, the West has supported Arab dictators and now must support genuine democratic reform.

"That is the time of them to say, 'We will give you all our support. We will give you all our recognition. Give our money. But honor the conditions of democratic reform,'" Sharansky said.

However, Sharansky said those reforms are much more than "free and fair" elections.

"Let me be clear. Freedom is not about immediate elections," he explained. "Freedom is free elections in a free society. The most important thing that these democratic changes cannot happen in one day."

"There has to be a few years of democratic reforms of building institutions, when citizens can see different options of their lives and can freely chose and not be afraid to choose these other options," he added.

He cited one dangerous example from 2006 when the U.S. State Department allowed Hamas to participate in elections. The result was that Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament and eventually took over the Gaza Strip resulting in another dictatorship. Some warned the same thing could happen in Egyptian elections with the Muslim Brotherhood. The key, Sharansky says, is who's allowed to participate.

"So it's very important in this process of building democratic institutions," Sharansky said. "Everybody will be allowed to participate but only those who accept the rules of democracy."

Sharansky believes the West can play a role and he has a recommendation for the U.S. Congress.

"Well, if I was an American senator, I would now bring an amendment to all our assistance to Egypt saying that essential part of this assistance has to go to democratic institutions," he said. "And whoever is the leader, if they don't accept these conditions we are not helping them."

Sharansky is hopeful millions throughout the Middle East might find freedom.

"If it will be done cleverly and yet firmly by the leaders of the free world I believe it is possible today that finally Arabs in Egypt and in other countries will stop living in fear societies," he said.

Time will tell and history will judge if Sharansky's predictions will come to pass.

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