UK Politics

David Cameron's Egypt trip poses political risk

David Cameron in Egypt
Image caption Mr Cameron's visit could open him up to accusations that he is lecturing Egypt's new regime

I stood with the prime minister on a hotel rooftop in Cairo, staring wistfully across the skyline.

In the distance we could just make out the sun-lit tops of the pyramids, a reminder of Egypt's past glories, a monument to its ancient leaders.

But our business was very much in the present.

It was frankly astonishing for David Cameron to be in Egypt. Egypt is still in flux. It is only 10 days since the country's president Hosni Mubarak stood down.

The interim government is still very much only that. Tahrir Square, where Mr Cameron did an unlikely walkabout, may have returned to its chaotic, noisy self, but the tanks are still there.

The risks for the prime minister are obvious.

He could be accused of lecturing the new regime - the old colonial West come to tell the Egyptians how to do their democracy - or he could be accused of legitimising a temporary military government simply by being here - an administration that may soon find the status quo rather comfortable.

But Mr Cameron rejects these views. For him, this was a moment of opportunity for Britain to encourage Egypt's government to press ahead with its move from military to civilian rule.

His argument is that the most important thing now is for people to have confidence that Egypt is on the right track.

If emergency law can be lifted, if some opposition figures can sit on the interim government, if a few political prisoners can be released, then all sides can take their time to sort out the things that matter, like elections and the constitution.

His hope is that Egypt can become a model for the region, responding to the aspirations of its people with reform, not repression.

But why should Egypt, or any other country in the Gulf, listen to Britain's lessons in democracy? Until recently, the UK supported the nation's autocrats in the name of trade and security, turning a blind eye to the treatment of their people.

And let us not forget that the PM is travelling with a business delegation that includes people who sell arms for a living. This trip may be about the ballot box but the bullet is in there too.

The prime minister rejects this analysis. It is, he says, perfectly valid for Britain to sell arms so countries like Kuwait, where he has now moved on to, can defend themselves.

And the choice between security and democracy here is now out of date, he says.

Autocrats are no longer stable. Long-term stability, he thinks, can be ensured only through permanent democratic reform - only that can secure British interests in trade and security.

That then is the new British foreign policy. And that is why Mr Cameron is rushing about the Middle East on a whistle stop tour preaching the virtues of democracy and not stopping in Cairo long enough to visit the pyramids on a camel.

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