ABC The Drum Unleashed

by Tom Switzer

An old neo-con colleague from Washington called me at the weekend to gloat about the downfall of Mubarak. "What do you think now, Switzer?" he asked in a voice that oozed a certain sort of metropolitan smugness.

His argument went like this:

For too long, US policy in this region has emphasised stability of pro-US regimes over the democratic aspirations of Arab populations. But this was a phony and dangerous status quo, because dictatorships such as Mubarak's gave birth to 9/11-style terrorism. The cosy US alliance with Cairo was a great recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. Which is why Bush was right to try to 'transform' the Middle East and make 'ending tyranny in our world' the centrepiece of his foreign policy. More freedom and democracy will undercut radicalism and terrorism.

You so-called realists have egg on your faces for thinking that the Middle East would never move toward democracy. We should back these people seeking freedom and recognise that any short-term instability is outweighed in the long term by the emergence of new liberal democratic governments that share our universal values. With the downfall of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and potentially more dictators in the region, the Arab world is catching the global democracy wave that began in 1989.

What is one to make of all this?

Leaving aside the Bush triumphalism, there is a lot here that neatly overlaps with the conventional left-leaning critique of my views on the subject. A fortnight ago, I wrote an article pointing out how revolutions can be for the worse, especially in part of the world with limited democratic traditions and institutions.

The response, both here and elsewhere, was overwhelmingly hostile - and, dare I say it, almost neo-conservative. Amoral, callous, condescending, crude, hypocritical, uncaring - all of these barbs were hurled my way. How insensitive to not fully embrace the democratic spirit on the Arab street. How cynical to say democracy for us but not for them. And so on.

The striking thing is that many of the same people who only a few years ago reviled a Texan cowboy's "freedom agenda" in the Middle East are now claiming solidarity with his neo-con sidekicks and the Egyptian democrats on the streets.

As the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal's editors claimed on Saturday: "We are all neo-cons now."

Well, allow me to disturb this harmony and point out why I think the transition from dictatorship to a genuine democracy in Egypt remains tricky, potentially messy and could even produce more unintended than intended consequences. Foreign policy idealism run amok can be dangerous, and the US and other western states must deal with nations as they are, not as neo-cons and liberals would like them to be.

We all know that to be viable democracy requires respect for human rights, the rule of law, private property, an independent judiciary, a free press, and an honest and impartial civil service. But not only does this mean that losers in elections respect the rights of the winners to rule; it also means that winners respect the rights of the losers to free speech, free association and assembly and with it the right to become the government by winning in a subsequent election. That is, democratic governments have to embrace the idea of a loyal opposition.

None of these conditions exists in today's Egypt. It lacks the civic and political culture and institutions that can sustain a western-style democracy. It does not have a strong tradition of tolerance and respect for minority rights. The dominant religious faith, Islam, in its more extreme form, rejects the legitimacy of democratic laws.

To be sure, the protesters that brought down Mubarak have expressed tolerance for difference and held to Gandhi's principle of non-violence. There has also been little evidence of anti-Americanism on the streets. Egypt, too, is far more nationalist and culturally homogenous than Iraq which is an arbitrarily created state and ethnically and tribally divided society.

All true. But the protesters do not represent an organised political party. Nor is there any established leader waiting in the wings. Former UN official Mohamed Elbaradei has lived abroad until recently and he has no political constituency. Ayman Nour, an opposition leader whom Mubarak had jailed, also lacks support and his party is divided. The history of the Egyptian military is one of supporting dictatorships. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, has the best existing basis on which to build a nationwide popular party organisation.

A Pew Global Research Centre survey last year showed Egyptians preferred Islamic fundamentalists to moderates and reformers by a margin by 59 to 27 per cent. By 95 to 2, Egyptians believe Islam should play a large role in their politics. And half of all Egyptians have a favourite view of Hamas, which Washington deems a terrorist outfit, and one in five has a favourite view of Al Qaeda, which is a terrorist outfit.

To the extent that such views prevail at the ballot box, they may contradict the notion that a liberal democracy can properly work in this part of the world. Could some aspects of Sharia Law fit well with western ideas of individual rights? Perhaps. But the source of law can be God or the people; it can't surely be both.

The point here is that one election doth not a democracy make. As even Francis Fukuyama, who famously declared the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and universalisation of market democracy, concedes: "Democracy does not magically spring to life once the dictator is gone, or even after the first free and fair election has taken place." If nations, moreover, lack any well-established traditions of democracy, their revolutions are vulnerable to being hijacked by well-organised minorities that have no sympathy for genuinely liberal and open society.

The question today is whether Egypt will follow the French and Iranian revolutions of 1789 and 1979 or the more recent peaceful and democratic transitions in the Philippines, South Korea, Eastern Europe, Taiwan and Indonesia.

We can only hope that Amr Bargisi, a leading Egyptian liberal activist, is wrong when he warns: "Without the knowledge of the likes of Locke and Burke, Hamilton and Jefferson, my country is doomed to either unbridled radicalism or continued repression."