Few would confidently predict the outcome of events in Egypt. The twin effects of 24/7 media coverage and the fact that so many Britons of all age groups have been tourists to that country brings into sharper focus the unfolding drama on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
Many Western politicians have traded platitudes about the need to promote democratic reform. The stark truth is that the authoritarian President Mubarak has for these past 29 years been a puppet of Western governments, which have turned a blind eye to his internal repression for so long as Egypt has remained a loyal trading partner and an ally (of sorts) to Israel. The failure simultaneously of Western powers to encourage even rudimentary democratic institutions to take hold in this north-eastern corner of Africa may be something we have cause to regret in the years ahead.
The desire of every day Egyptians for freedom may well be authentic enough. However, the absence of any evidence there of the foundation of freedoms that we would take for granted makes the rapid transition from dictatorship (only now so eagerly promoted by Western politicians) a matter of wishful thinking. Elections are only ever a starting point – democracy needs to be underpinned by an independent judiciary, a free press and the rule of law alongside a culture that enables the population to hold government and state institutions to account once the voting is over.
How Egypt deals with its past will also prove crucial to its democratic future. So long as the fall of governments in the region leads to the exile, imprisonment or worse of their leaders and political supporters, the more likely it will be that any new Head of State will view as critical the retention of power at all costs.
The immediate purge of Mubarak and his cronies may well be seen as vital in drawing a line under the past decades of authoritarianism. But a democracy is characterised as much by how it treats it opponents as it is by the functioning of its government. If the replacement to President Mubarak’s regime is to flourish, it must be confident that it has an equally important role in opposition when its time in power comes to an end. How Mubarak’s key allies are now dealt with will be critical in providing that reassurance. In practical terms, Egypt would also be unwise to repeat the mistakes made in Iraq where a governing role in society could not be found for those with experience at a time when that country was at its most volatile.
In truth we meddle in Egyptian affairs at our peril. History teaches us that democratic freedoms need to be developed carefully and tend to flower only over a prolonged period. Yet today time for these principles to be embodied is not on Egypt’s side.
I am reminded of the French revolutions of 1789-1792 and the Russian uprisings of 1917. In both cases an absolutist monarchy of long-standing was supplanted initially by a regime with popular support that promised individual rights and freedoms. Within a short period power had been seized by a new group of authoritarian political operatives. In modern Egypt the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood sits patiently in the wings. Even if today it lacks widespread popular support, the chaos that probably lies ahead for Egypt in the months to come may so diminish general living standards that the population may before long turn to the certainties of ‘strong government’.
When we pronounce airily of ‘universal human rights’ it would be wise to remember that the democratic freedoms we enjoy here in the United Kingdom arise exclusively from the constitutional settlement won by previous generations of Britons.
Egypt has a breathtakingly young population. Half its citizens are below the age of 24 – a new generation whose mobile phones, computers and televisions give them unprecedented access to information. Insofar as this generation seeks examples to follow from across the world, we should be ready to offer the support and advice that our experience of freedom and the rule of law gives us. Ultimately whether those values are adopted must be the choice of the Egyptian people.