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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - July 5, 2013

The help the region needs is not of the type the west has been giving

by Philip Stephens

How much have the US and its allies spent fighting wars this past decade? Add Iraq to Afghanistan, throw in the ever-prowling drones overPakistan and Yemen and the bombs dropped on Libya, and the sum must amount to several trillion dollars. How much have these governments invested in would-be democracies since the start of the Arab uprisings? Unless you classify F-16 fighter jets as aid, it is a struggle to count much beyond a billion or so.
The record makes one hesitate to say that the west has anything resembling a sensible prescription for the Middle East after this week’s coup in Egypt. The postcolonial settlement in the region is collapsing into sectarian strife. Borders are being erased as Sunnis square up against Shia, and Islamism battles secularism. Yet political leaders in Washington, Paris and London mostly occupy themselves mulling military intervention in Syria.
In a different mindset, these leaders would have been attentive to the slow-motion car crash that ended in the toppling of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Where was the promised economic aid to buttress political pluralism after the fall of Hosni Mubarak? I was sure I heard someone talk about aMarshall plan for the region. It might even have been Barack Obama.
It is so much easier to focus on guns than butter – to direct missile-firing drones against groups of jihadis holed up in the mountains of Waziristan rather than to consider the great victory that would fall to the disciples of al-Qaeda through the snuffing out of Egypt’s democratic experiment. When did David Cameron, Britain’s ever-hawkish prime minister, last turn his mind to nurturing democracy in Tunisia – or, for that matter, helping to salvage something in post-Gaddafi Libya?
The Egyptian president, it can be said, was never his own best advocate. The majoritarian instinct of his Muslim Brotherhood, having won office in a free election, was to suppress the freedoms integral to a democratic system. Mr Morsi flirted with extremist Salafists. A new constitution was twisted in favour of Islamists, and the power of the state bent towards theocracy. Egyptians had not turned out in their millions to depose Mr Mubarak in order to assert the primacy of the mosque. By the end, Mr Morsi could not recognise his own weakness.
The mistake on all sides in the Middle East has been to confuse democracy with the ballot box. It is not enough that leaders submit themselves for periodical elections. Democracy demands a commitment to pluralism, the submission of the powerful as well as the weak to the rule of law, protections for minorities and respect for cultural and ethnic difference. None of these was in plentiful supply during Mr Morsi’s year-long presidency.
For all that, a coup is a coup, even when its supporters call it a revolution and when flag-trailing military helicopters win loud applause from the vast crowds in Tahrir Square. There is a long history in this part of the world of the military intervening “on behalf of the people”. The precedents are not at all encouraging.
Perhaps General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian defence minister, really means what he promises: a swift return to civilian rule and a pluralist constitution. But the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be excluded from such a settlement. In any event, calling in the army is not how democracies behave when leaders fail. If Mr Morsi had to go, what was needed was his defeat in an election. The ballot boxes cannot be the property of generals.
Mr Obama, of course, was careful not to call it a coup. To have done so would automatically have halted the flow of US aid. Most Egyptians would not have noticed, but the generals would. The bulk of the $1bn-plus offered to Cairo in annual US aid comes in the form of new military kit for the air force and army. This represents Washington’s leverage over the military. Doubtless it will be deployed to urge Gen Sisi to ensure a swift return to civilian rule. Whether it will count for much is doubtful.
Egypt needs two things to build a democracy. Tunisia, and any other Arab state seeking to make the transition, need the same. The first is massive aid – technology as well as money, trade access as well as educational assistance – to modernise the economy, and to keep people off the streets while constitutions are written and institutions built. The second is expert advice and powerful incentives to create the political ecosystem in which opposing political forces can flourish. Dictators operate zero-sum regimes. Democracy demands positive sum outcomes that safeguard the interests of minorities as well as majorities.
Europe has been no better than the US in this respect, even though many of these countries sit on the southern rim of the Mediterranean. Sure, there are EU programmes, European Investment Bank projects and promises of better trade terms. These are useful. But none has measured up to the need and the potential prize. Tunisia should by now be a role model for the region – testimony to Europe’s capacity to export prosperity and stability. Instead, as inEgypt, society and politics have been polarising.
Only daydreamers thought the Arab uprisings would see a transition within a decade or two to a region of shiny new democracies. On the very best assumptions, shaking off authoritarianism was going to be a generation-long project. Now, with civil war in Syria and the coup in Egypt, the region has started to go backwards. This is not to say it is time to give up and embrace the generals; it is to demand that the west think again about how to help.

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