The continuing violence in Egypt underlines an as yet insoluble challenge unfolding from the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
In recent months, besides Egypt’s bloodshed and abrupt reversal of electoral choice, there have been killings in Tunisia and Libya, increased car bombings in Iraq and continuing war in Syria.
The prospect of a violent domino effect across the region remains real and dangerous, but so far there appears to be a dearth of substantive, new ideas of how to end mistrust and restore stability.
The main question, arising whenever dictatorship is toppled, of how to fill power vacuums during the long process needed to build democratic government remains unanswered, and within that lie two further issues that need to be urgently addressed.
The first is what to do if the electoral vote goes to a political movement that seemingly pits itself against other powerful interests. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood falls into this category.
Earlier examples include a Marxist victory in Chile in 1970, reversed by an US-backed coup; the Palestinian territories in 2006 where Hamas remains unrecognized by many governments; and Vietnam in 1956 where communist leader Ho Chi Minh would have won power had the United States not forced cancellation of the elections.
The second is the need to focus quickly and laser-like on the economy because, as most politicians acknowledge, the bedrock of democratic success is to create inclusive economic development with a sharing of wealth governed by strong, impartial institutions.
So far, the Arab uprisings have failed to deliver on both counts.
Egypt, at present, is polarized between two rival forces, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, both authoritarian in nature and inexperienced in representative government.
Given that the Muslim Brotherhood has only just emerged from the underground, it was inevitable that the country’s institutions, such as the police, media and courts, were moulded by the values and loyalties of the former dictatorship and therefore lean towards the military.
There should have been so surprise that President Mohamed Morsi, untrained in compromise and lacking institutional support, would run into trouble. Nor should it have been surprising that the military-controlled government, once it had taken back power but under pressure and bereft of ideas, so quickly broke its own rules and sanctioned force against its own citizens.
The brutal scenes from Cairo this week are shockingly reminiscent of those from Beijing almost a quarter of a century ago when troops cleared Tiananmen Square of opposition activists.
Yet unlike the Chinese government then, Egypt and the world leaders who stayed silent for too long after Morsi’s overthrow, could have learned much from what’s happened with democratic transitions since 1989.
Far from being unique, the Arab uprisings – while differing in detail – follow a broad global normality.
Reforms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s saw Yugoslavia and Chechnya dissolve into civil war. Elsewhere came unprecedented levels of poverty and corruption, sometimes motivated by institutions needing to fund salaries and pensions.
At the same time, South Africa’s crime rates shot up under the Mandela presidency. The Ivory Coast, once the jewel of West Africa, became conflict-ridden as did many other countries in Africa.
The first popular toppling of dictatorship in recent times took place in the Philippines with the 1986 overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos. His successor, Corazon Aquino, weathered nine coup attempts and, like Morsi’s, her presidency was a series of disappointments.
But unlike him, she handed over office to an elected successor, largely because Fidel Ramos, a former chief of staff of the armed forces, could keep the military in check.
The United States’ 2003-4 governance of Iraq oversaw the start of civil war there, while failing to restore the most basic of services such as water, electricity and fuel supplies and this, of course, was the nub of the complaints against Morsi’s rule.
His ideology, even his clumsy government, might have been tolerated. But fuel shortages drove up prices, impacting living standards, and lost him support, particularly in traditional rural heartlands.
A year ago on the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory, clearer thinking could have enabled both Egyptian and international institutions to mentor this political movement towards the checks and balances of democratic government. This might have quieted inflammatory rhetoric and allowed a focus on business and trade.
But to achieve this, a beacon was needed, and the most obvious source is Europe.
Eighty percent of Egypt’s trade passes through the shabby, historic port city of Alexandria, once a global capital for trade, education and new ideas. Famous for its libraries and universities, this city was where Archimedes designed the first water pump and where geographers declared the world was round, not flat. Its influences came from Rome and Athens, from Christian and Islamic rulers, and from traders all over the Mediterranean and wider world.
Yet, now, Alexandria’s Chamber of Commerce on its sweeping Mediterranean sea front is near-empty and, when asked if it’s safe to invest unmotivated staff respond wearily that they are not allowed to discuss politics.
Egypt, though, is a member of the new and under-used Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Known as EUROMED, the partnership has a mission of economic integration and democratic reform encompassing 16 of the European Union’s southern neighbours across the Middle East and North Africa.
Some influential voices in the EU argue that it’s too early to focus on the economies of the region until political stability is in place. But they are wrong, partly because the building of domestic institutions will take many years and partly because Europe itself tells a different story.
Within a few years of Second World War, while wracked by violence, weak government and ethnic tensions, plans were drawn up to stop further conflict in Europe through a trade-led agreement. In 1951, six once-warring countries formed the European Coal and Steel Community whose institutions over the course of more than 60 years have been strengthened to create the now 28-nation European Union.
Through EUROMED, a similar initiative could push for an increase in trade that would encourage the widespread institutional reform needed to attract investment.
At present, the EU’s 16 Mediterranean neighbours only constitute 8.6 percent of its total trade, evidence that there is massive scope for expansion.
Therefore, EUROMED could act as a beacon visible to every citizen, forcing through an understanding that with compromise, negotiation and the rule-of-law, trade will produce wealth and progress.
The style of governance would then be moulded less by the slogans of ideology and more by mechanisms needed to make money. This is the model that fused Europe and emerged in East Asia and other regions of the developing world.
The alternative, of course, is unpalatable. Iraq’s transition remains threatened by bombing and bloodshed. Islamic fighters are becoming predominant in Syria. Afghanistan braces for the withdrawal of Western troops, and the past month has seen militant attacks on prisons in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, freeing hundreds loyal to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups all of whom are hungry to fill the vacuum of unstable leadership. Egypt approaches civil war.
In that respect, this has become a race between trade and terror.
Humphrey Hawksley’s BBC report from Alexandria is on www.bbc.co.uk. His book Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About the Vote is published by Macmillan. The Union for the Mediterranean, EUROMED, promotes economic integration and democratic reform. Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. YaleGlobal Online
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