We should always be wary of fundamental and radical change when it comes to any country. The Arab Spring has been a complicated and often surprising political process.
How it began is shrouded in ignorance. Both commentators and academics are forced to resort to speculation. We know it began in Tunisia on the 18th December 2010 when protesters took to the streets after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire the day before.
That this event then led to the toppling of governments across the Arab World is remarkable. It is true revolutions tend to have long gestations and seemingly insignificant catalysts, but it is still remarkable nonetheless. The difficulty for the countries and the governments looking from the outside in is not always to diagnose the reasons for change, but to know how to respond to it.
In this, western governments have been less than consistent, fluctuating from idle talk of progressive political change to the arming of rebel forces. This fact highlights two crucial aspects of modern diplomatic relations: first, that inconsistency and hypocrisy are necessary ingredients; and, secondly, that often the best things foreign countries can do is simply to wait and see what happens.
Egypt offers the most striking example of the successes and the failures of the Arab Spring. After three decades, Hosni Mubarak was thrown out of office, tried as a criminal and sentenced to prison, his assets around the world are being seized with the aid of governments who used to support him, and he is now on his deathbed if recent reports about his health are to be believed. In his place Egypt has elected democratically Mohamed Morsi, who was sworn in in June.
Egypt’s fledgling democracy
While we may be cheered by the news of elections, it is something of a Pyrrhic victory. Last month, Morsi declared that his decisions could not be appealed in order to ‘protect the revolution’. In response, more than ninety per cent of the country’s judges have decided to boycott the vote on a new constitution.
Since they were expected to oversee this vote, rather than being held on one Saturday (15th December), it now has to be held on two (also the 22nd December). Even here the revolution is becoming unstuck. The secularist opponents of Mubarak are unhappy that the committee that drew up the constitution was stuffed with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who included constitutional powers for clerics in a form like that of Iran, and failed adequately to protect certain fundamental human rights. What is more, draconian rules on only being allowed to vote in your home constituency means that students and migrant workers (many of whom work in the tourism industry) are likely to be disenfranchised, the very people most likely to oppose the proposed constitution.
Given the current proposed constitution has been criticised for these failings, it may seem surprising that the British government has not voiced concerns.
However, it must be remembered that the government only decided to support those protesting against Hosni Mubarak after it became clear he was not going to remain in power for much longer. British foreign policy cannot be dictated by an absolute commitment to the imposition of liberty around the world. Such thinking in the Foreign Office leads only to hubris. A trade-off has to be made to support and have fruitful relations with moderate dictators whose primary objectives are perpetual power and self-enrichment, and to condemn those extreme dictatorships who pose a threat to our liberties. That is why it took so long for us to question Mubarak, and why we must now wait to see what Morsi does before coming down firmly on the side of the current protesters.
True liberty is national
The problem is that liberty is not simply individual; it is also national. This is why the United Kingdom accepts self-determination, the idea that a body of people can come together and identify themselves as one, and we, outside that body, must respect their choices and allow them to overcome their own follies.
Sometimes countries like Egypt will eventually have the domestic shift towards the liberties that we all hope to be established. But this process is hardly a smooth road. It is only when the Egyptian people walk down this road themselves that liberty can truly be accepted and defended. When liberties are easily won or externally imposed, they are misunderstood and poorly practised.
One of the greatest fears always in a new democracy is the descent into the tyranny of the majority. In countries that have lived with democracy for decades we know that majority rule does not and should not mean that that majority rules without considering the minority, or without reference to central and unchanging rules about, for example, the need for a popular plebiscite every few years.
Mohamed Morsi has already shown he does not understand the principles of democracy. It is up to those Egyptian people who do, and who are not protesting, to put their country on the right road again. They may well fail, but if they do, it means Egypt is not yet ready for those liberties we take for granted.
When Egypt is ready, whether it is in the coming months or in several decades after a period of Islamic rule, the United Kingdom must be there to offer its support. Until then, as painful as it may be, we must remain on the outside looking in.