A wise man once told me, "People get the government they deserve." At the time, I thought this assessment was overly harsh. After all, what can unarmed civilians do when they are under the control of a dictator? I still believe it is a sweeping statement, but perhaps it contains more than a few grains of truth. People who are willing to be ridden over will be, or, as a wise woman I once knew said, "Make like a doormat and people will wipe their feet."
So it is in interpersonal relations, so it is with societies and dictators who would seize power. In any time and place, there will always be power-crazed and ruthless groups and individuals. Whether they have their way has much to do with the character of the decent and peaceful folk within a society, including their will, their determination, and their capacity for courage in their own defense.
These past weeks, the people of Egypt have risen up and demanded freedom. Like any society, Egypt is a polyglot of people of varying orientations and motivations. The future is uncertain. And, especially given recent history, including the 1979 Islamist revolution in Iran - which started out as a liberal revolution - there is cause for serious concern that the radicals will take over.
That said, it would take a jaded eye to fail to see the beauty of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian people standing up and, for the most part peacefully, demanding their freedom.
Is it naive to hope? The belief that men and women carry within a universal urge for freedom is a core belief for me, as is the belief that progress is possible.
This week I spoke with Iraqi human rights champion and former Iraqi Parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi. Mr. Alusi, whose two sons were murdered by terrorists after he traveled to Israel to promote good relations and counter-terror cooperation between Iraq and the Jewish State, has been a fearless champion of progress and true liberalism--free press, rule of law, and human rights--in the Middle East. As a native-born Iraqi who has invested his entire life in progress in the Middle East, he is an expert on the subject of democracy in this volatile region.
Alusi's take on this revolution is that it can go either way, and much depends of the role the U.S. is willing to take, as the leader of the free world, in nurturing and supporting a liberal state in Egypt, one that helps the majority in Egypt, whom Mr. Alusi characterizes as the "good, clean people" to be ascendant in the new system. If the U.S. is hands off, Alusi cautions, the extremists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who he describes as "very organized," will take over.
In answer to my question, "Who are the reformers?" he said, "Generally the people on the street are good people, young people. They learn from the internet how to say yes or no - not like my generation [in which] they say you must respect your uncle and father you don't have the right to say no, to anything."
"Those people they are good people on the street--but the old parties are very organized, [like] the Islamic Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has been punished by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, but they have a good network."
Alusi, who knows firsthand the difficulties campaigning against well-organized and well-funded extremists as a liberal who has little help from the U.S. or other liberal democracies, added, "Mostly the common people are good people and clean but they don't have know how to campaign, to run political parties, to organize... The extremists are in a position to use those clean people and control the situation."
Asked what he thinks the odds are that this revolution will turn out badly, at least in the short term, for democratic forces, he said, "We have more chance for war. The extremists will move into the vacuum."
"Now is time to focus on U.S.-Iraqi relations, the Jordan-Iraqi relations. Now is the time to build alliance to stand up to a new wave of people attacking peace in the region."
Alusi also spoke of the dangers posed by the chaotic situation that exists at present. Prisoners, including anti-Israeli extremists with blood on their hands, have been released from jail.
"Nasrallah was so happy to say people arrived in Lebanon, they talked to their families in Gaza and Lebanon--this is a dangerous development," he said. "Remember, Al Qaeda started in Egypt."
"I assure you 100 percent the terrorists are well-organized and can win the game," he said.
"We don't know who is in the new government," he said. "I hope it will be moderate. We need this peace." Peace between Israel and Egypt in the past was "not real peace but ceasefire. Real peace means cooperation, normal interactions between human beings. Is that what a new Egypt will stand for? We don't know."
Another possibility Alusi cautioned about is the threat of a destabilized region in which other governments start to fall. Not all Middle East governments, even autocracies, are equal. In particular, he spoke of Jordan, where Alusi said the monarchy is more moderate than many of the people.
"Fifty percent of Jordanians are Palestinian - most are Islamists," he said. "The leaders in Jordan are moderate. The original Jordanians are okay. But now, to open doors for those extremists who will play crazy games, is dangerous. U.S. should support strong alliance with government of Jordan.
"Jordan is a beautiful, very poor state but King Hussein built some state [infrastructure]. But the Palestinians don't like the original Jordanians. The Palestinians have an important role in government but they are not happy."
To sum up: Alusi is inspired to see Egyptians stand up for their freedom. But he cautions the U.S. and other democracies must take a strong leadership role in encouraging moderate democracy; otherwise, Islamist extremists will take control of Egypt: "I will support always the free opinion position, right of the people to say what they want. But we must not be naïve. There is a well organized network and they should not benefit from this. The U.S. can guide regimes to go and reform."
He also said the U.S. and Europe should not be seduced into believing the Muslim Brotherhood is genuinely becoming moderate: "We need Europeans and Americans to work hard to make it clear they support stability, reforms through soft way, they are not going to make any kind of deals with extremists even if they came to the table."
Finally, Alusi says, "There are many Egyptian reformers, good politicians, Egyptian patriots but they are not organized like the Muslim Brotherhood, so till they reach this kind of organization and until they are known," he fears they will not be in power.
A final thought: Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose tearful televised speech helped to galvanize the uprising, thanked Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, for his part in fomenting the revolution. When a populist Arab leader takes to the airwaves to thank a Jew for help in fomenting a democratic revolution in the Middle East, maybe there's hope for democracy in the region.