Democracy in Egypt: how long is the long run?

Protesters calling for Mubarak to go, Cairo, 30 January 2011 (picture Mona / Flickr)

The current turmoil in Egypt could end in any number of ways.  Perhaps there will be moves in the direction of democracy, to make Egypt look a bit more like Turkey.  Perhaps there will be a reshuffle of the politicians but no real change in regime, like Jordan.  Perhaps there will be a revolution with the Islamists taking over, like in Iran.  Nobody knows.

But the fact that nobody knows does not stop the speculation.  In fact, it probably encourages it.

Tory Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan has written that in the long run democracy is the best idea.  Agreed, of course, but how long is the long run?  Egypt’s neighbour Israel is understandably nervous about what might transpire before the long run is reached.

For democracy is not something that can readily be created.  It is a political system that must have its roots in national life and national culture: why else do different countries practise democracy in different ways?  Democracy is not like electricity or blood groups, which work in the same way in every country.  Democracy is more like cooking or music, it is performed differently in different parts of the world.  And each country has to find its own way of doing it.

After all, the difficulty of creating democracy is the reason why, in the case of the European Union, Daniel Hannan can be so confident that it does not apply.  He can’t say one thing – democracy is easy – in Egypt but another thing somewhere else.  

The great achievement of Jean Monnet was to devise a way in which a democratic system in Europe could be created by stages: it was and is not an all-or-nothing proposal.  Over time, the different countries in Europe agreed to share political power over more and more areas of policy – first trade, then business, now cross-border criminal justice – and, in parallel, agreed to develop institutions with more and more features of democracy.  Each step made sense in its own terms, but was also consistent with the longer-term vision.  (The Schuman Declaration describes the idea.)

The challenge for reformers in Egypt is to outline the route towards a democratic Egypt, given that many of the normal features of a democracy – a free press, independent political parties – are largely absent and, moreover, that no-one knows what, in an Egyptian context, they would look like.  Every country’s democracy is different, don’t forget, and Egypt has never yet had one.

Comparisons with central and eastern Europe after the fall of Communism are not very helpful.  Those countries had a clear vision of accession to the European Union which guided them when their own democratic traditions were weak or non-existent.  Not only are the Egyptians faced with building a democracy (if that is what they try and do), they would be doing so largely alone.  It is not easy being a democracy in a sea of autocracies.  This is part of the problem that Israel has faced for 60 years.  To be a democracy does not guarantee peaceful and cooperative relations with other countries, but it often makes it easier, and it certainly is a necessary precondition if supranational institutions are to be founded and be legitimate.

But this is for the long run.  In the nearer term, it is for the democratic friends of Egypt to offer help and assistance as much as they can.  If this is not a task for a European foreign policy, it is hard to imagine what is.

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