Monday, January 31, 2011

A New Democratic Wave in the Middle East?

Álvaro de Vasconcelos is the Director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

The Roar of the Democratic Wave

Álvaro de Vasconcelos

PARIS – Has the uprising in Tunisia sparked a new democratic wave that will conquer Egypt and eventually sweep away the authoritarian “Arab exception”? After southern Europe in the 1970’s, Latin America in the late 1980’s, and Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990’s, it seems that now it is the Mediterranean region’s turn. For Europe, democratization immediately to its south is a vital interest.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster in Tunisia signalled the collapse of the Arab “stability” model, praised by many Western leaders, consisting of authoritarianism and overrated economic performance. The surge of anger and revolt in Egypt, whatever its final outcome, marks the beginning of the end for authoritarian nationalist Arab regimes.

In contrast to Tunisia, the military is a pillar of the Egyptian regime. But it is unlikely that Egypt’s huge (mostly conscript) army will engage in massive, violent repression, which would be unprecedented in that country.

Even if President Hosni Mubarak hangs on to complete the remainder of his term, the ruling National Democratic Party’s regime, its legitimacy irreparably shaken, will not survive for long. Omar Suleiman’s appointment as Vice-President (and heir-apparent) indicates that the army has accepted that Mubarak must leave sooner or later. Nor, it seems clear, will Mubarak secure the succession of his son, Gamel, before he goes.

The regime’s international legitimacy is equally in a shambles. The United States, Egypt’s main ally, while stopping short of siding with the protesters, is holding the regime to Mubarak’s promise of a “better democracy,” and demanding swift action to meet the people’s legitimate demands. By hinting strongly that its $1.5 billion in largely military aid would be withheld in the event of unacceptable levels of repression, the US revealed that the post-Mubarak era is already being contemplated.

The US – and Europe – are keen to avoid a sudden collapse of the Egyptian regime. But a protracted and incremental process of small steps towards economic and then political reform – the sequence contemplated by the European Union – is no longer an option. The regime is past reforming, and must give way to a new democratic republic, with a new constitution.

Ideally, this should come about in a manner similar to democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980’s, when authoritarian, army-backed rulers yielded to popular demands for radical, democratic regime change. Resorting to thugs to carry out widespread intimidation, and blaming violence on the largely peaceful protests of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians, as their government has done, is not a good omen.

Unlike in Tunisia, Europeans and Americans should increase the pressure on Egypt’s leaders – primarily the military at this stage – to start fulfilling the regime’s promises of political reform. This will lack credibility under Mubarak, whose refusal to stand down is a recipe for chaos. It is necessary that the international community:

· Withdraw support for Mubarak;

· Support the formation of a transitional authority, supported by the military and the “street,” and including independent political figures untainted by the regime, to prepare free and fair elections;

· Call for an amnesty for all political prisoners.

Many of the conditions needed for a democratic transformation – a vibrant and organized civil society, a relatively free press, and well-respected opposition figures, as well as a variety of battered but breathing political parties of different persuasions – are already present.

Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is only marginally involved in an uprising that it did not initiate and has no hope of controlling, is no excuse for trying to save a failing regime. The tragic consequences of eleventh-hour attempts to save the Shah in Iran should not be forgotten. There is also no reason to believe (contrary to the regime’s insistence) that the Brotherhood would emerge victorious from a democratic transition.

Of course, there are concerns about the future of Egypt’s foreign policy, especially toward Israel. But there is no indication that a non-authoritarian Egyptian regime would call into question the bilateral peace treaty, though a definite end to the Gaza blockade and a shift in attitude towards Hamas – in the sense of a more serious attempt at forging Palestinian unity – are to be expected.

For Europe, the best option is to support the mass movement calling for regime change led by Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The joint declaration by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, calling for a “broad-based government” and “free and fair elections” in Egypt stands in stark contrast to the embarrassed silence that was heard at the outset of Tunisia’s democratic uprising. It is still too soon, however, to conclude that Europeans have finally overcome their fear of Arab democracy and will not be tempted to accept milder forms of “liberal authoritarianism” should the crisis drag on or a military takeover occur.

That would be a grave mistake, for such an outcome would most likely pave the way for extreme alternatives. Europe and the US must be as supportive of democracy in the Mediterranean region as they are within Europe itself. When tides are turning, people will remember who stood with them and who did not. As it did during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, Europe needs to show that it stands for democracy, not merely for stability.

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