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Democracy-lite won't do for Egypt

Gavin Hewitt | 15:52 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011

As a European summit drew to a close last Friday in Brussels an official said "today we agreed no measures" and ennui settled on the corridors of the Justus Lipsius building like low-hanging mist.

Heads of government had been delayed making their getaways because of an outbreak of national irritation at a largely German-designed "pact" for competitiveness.

So nothing was expected from the final press conferences - but then I had a jolt. We were discussing arguably the most important foreign policy questions of our time. How far should the West and Europe go in promoting democracy in the Middle East and predominantly Muslim countries? Is it best to stick with authoritarian allies or to embrace change and democracy, with the risk you might not end up with what you like? With such issues a generation of American and Western leaders have grappled - and rarely successfully.

Events in Egypt overshadowed the Brussels meeting and dominated David Cameron's press conference. He is a prime minister who occasionally likes to riff, to free-wheel, to go off-script - and here in the dying embers of a summit he revealed a lot about his thinking on democracy and the Middle East. There was even a brief mention of the "neo-cons" - a species, who along with President Bush, had long left town and faded from view.

I had pointed out to David Cameron that while he and other European leaders had been having lunch, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei had called for Egyptians to rise up and install an Islamic state. I asked the PM whether that exposed the danger of insisting on change "now".

"I believe," said David Cameron, "that the longer you leave the process of reform the greater the danger there is that you will get statements like that from Iran, or indeed actions like that from Islamic extremists in Egypt. So all the more case for moving to a broad-based government and political transition more quickly. It's the delay that gives that opening rather than actually the reform."


Anti-Mubarak crowd in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 7 Feb 11

No longer is there any agonising - as there was with the Shah - over supporting an old friend. In Washington and European capitals no alternative is seen than to take the risk - even if you don't always like the outcome, as with the electoral victory of Hamas.

In the United States the former presidential candidate John McCain said he was scared to death the Muslim Brotherhood might gain power, but "the option of holding off on democracy is not an option".

David Cameron firmly believed that democracy could take root in mainly Muslim countries and that, by implication, the West had been too timid.

"I simply don't accept," the PM went on, "that there is just a choice in life between on the one hand having a regime that does not respect rights and democracy and on the other hand having an Islamic extremist regime. We don't accept that it is impossible for predominantly Muslim countries to have a functioning democracy. They have one in Turkey; they have one in Indonesia. I think frankly it's condescending to say that other countries can't have one too."

Of course - particularly under George Bush - the neo-cons (neo-conservatives) had argued for exporting democracy. They saw free elections as the antidote to extremism. Some say that vision was used to justify military adventurism.

With David Cameron the expectations are much lower. Change, if it comes, will take time. He sees building democratic structures as more important than elections. It was a view echoed during the weekend by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

"That's not to say that democracy is simply the act of holding an election," he continued. "I think that's what the neo-cons were wrong about. Democracy isn't just the act of holding an elections, it's about the building blocks of democracy. It's about ensuring you do have rights, you do have the rule of law. You do have a proper role for the judiciary and an appropriate place for the army. It's about all of these things built up over many, many years in our own country that we want to see in other countries. So we shouldn't be naive, or starry-eyed about believing that by flicking a switch with an election that will solve all the problems. We should be encouraging nations like Egypt to move in that direction."

He sees the importance of nation-building, but not to the West's design. Europe and America can encourage and nudge but they cannot be preachers. Nations will not be converted to freedom.

Rather, David Cameron spoke of a "partnership for open societies". Mrs Merkel had backed away from giving advice to Egyptians. "I can't imagine they are waiting to hear what we think," she said.

Western leaders know that this is a pivotal moment for the Middle East. Most of them have firmly sided with the aspirations of the Egyptian people. Their statements, however, reflect an acceptance of the limits to their power and influence. So the West has settled for what it calls "orderly transition" rather than an immediate transfer of power.

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