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World

West worries over the prospect of Mideast democracy

While Egypt battles on in a state of uncertainty, Western leaders are displaying unusual levels of rhetorical restraint. Some observers believe that is because they are actually quite happy with the status quo.

Protesters at night time in Cairo

Enroute to democracy?

Although the troubles in North Africa were given a last-minute place on the agenda at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, official comment arising from debate upon it, followed much the same tame path.

"There are risks with the transition to democracy," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, adding that it could backslide into another authoritarian regime. "Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who used violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power."

Her bottom line was that Egypt should proceed slowly and on its own terms. And her view was shared by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the conference that achieving democracy was not a matter of "flicking a switch and holding an election."

Angela Merkel and David Cameron in a room of people

Angela Merkel and David Cameron say Egypt must decide for itself

And they were joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in emphasizing that it ought not be US and EU politicians but the Egyptian people who decide the future course of their country.

No guns blazing

This reluctance to wade on in comes in stark contrast to recent Western intervention not a million miles from Cairo, and has prompted speculation from commentators about exaclty how the EU and the US would like to see Egypt emerge from its current crisis.

Daniel Korski, Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), says that Western policy-makers have wrongly convinced themselves that it is better for Mideast governments to stay as they are and to stay out of their affairs.

"They have lulled themselves into the belief that our involvement tarnishes our reputation," he told Deutsche Welle. "But at the end of the day, it goes against the ideals and principles on which our countries are founded and fundamentally betrays Middle Easterners."

A US soldier puts a US flag over a large statue of Saddam Hussein

The US showed less restraint in Iraq in 2003

There besides, Korski says both a backlash against the way George W. Bush championed democracy and angst about what might be waiting around the next corner are keeping the West from charging into the fray.

"There is real fear of encouraging processes which will lead from orderly dictatorships to disorderly chaos which could give way to theocratic rule."

The next Eastern Europe

But the ECFR expert believes the West's reluctance to speak up over Egypt is not very helpful.

"2011 is going to be the Mideast's 1989, and for Western and European policy-makers to be so nervous looks odd," Korski said, adding that it ought to be possible for them to articulate a case of support without appearing to be interfering. "In Eastern Europe it was confusing and hard to understand, but people were not afraid to articulate their thoughts."

black and white picture of protesters in Berlin in 1989

1989 protests in Berlin

At the weekend Angela Merkel, who grew up in the Communist East Germany said pictures from Egypt had awakened "images of what we experienced in Europe." She said it was important to show solidarity with the people of Egypt, but that the West should not simply try to export its model of democracy to other regions.

Getting involved without interfering

Europe and Mediterranean expert Almut Möller of the German Council on Foreign Relations told Deutsche Welle that what the EU wants is to see stability restored to Egypt, albeit of a different variety.

"I think the EU has understood that what it perceived as stability was a defective stability and that there were a lot of problems under the surface," she said, adding that the explosive overnight nature of the current troubles is a case in point. "I think that having understood this, there is a growing feeling that democracy guarantees stability."

As far as Möller is concerned Western countries can play an important role in helping the North African country through what is widely expected to be a messy transition without sticking their oars in too deep at this most sensitive of times.

"We know that if Egypt is supposed to have a future as a democratic country, the offer of support from Europe should be about creating new structures, about constitutional reform and guaranteeing free elections."

Illegal immigrants on a boat

Illegal immigration into the EU could be a side effect of democracy in Egypt

Korski believes the West would ideally like to see an orderly transition that makes Hosni Mubarak a figure head, and allows for some kind of army-assisted rule which leads to a democratic process.

However transition does occur, experience suggests it will go hand-in-hand with turmoil and economic insecurity. And as NATO has already warned, there is also a high chance that it will increase illegal immigration to Europe.

"But that is a price worth paying for the liberty of others," Korski said.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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