It is springtime in the Arab and Muslim world, but it isn't clear that Canada notices, to judge by the election campaign. Neither is it clear what Canada is prepared to do, beyond its participation in the Western military campaign in Libya, to support a democratic transformation in the Middle East. Or how it will adjust its relationships in the region.
Consider the four conditions set by Lawrence Cannon, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, for a transitional Egyptian regime during the turmoil around former president Hosni Mubarak. Two of the four conditions related to Israel. Mr. Cannon's position was tone-deaf. It sent the wrong signal about Canada's feelings toward the democratic movement in Egypt, and elsewhere.
Canada should be an agent of change in those countries in which a transformation from autocracy to democracy is most likely to happen. Tunisia is one such country. Egypt, with 80 million people, is pivotal.
But where is discussion about these issues? One wouldn't know, to read the platforms of the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, that not since the fall of the Soviet Union has the world witnessed such riveting events, the pouring into the streets day after day, the toppling of a dictator, all of which happened this winter. One wouldn't know that these are exciting, hopeful and scary times.
The Conservatives are silent on the Middle East; the Liberals do mention that region directly, albeit in passing, and offer a vague plan for a "Canada Democracy Agency" that would spread "peace, order and good government"; the New Democrats offer boilerplate about security for Israel and Palestine. And in the televised leaders' debates, the subject didn't come up.
It is fair and necessary for Canada to make the point that as Arab countries become more politically pluralistic, their relationships with Canada will strengthen. It is fair to stress, with regard to Canada's relationship with Israel, that democracies stand for similar values and support one another.
But Israel will not, forever, be an island of freedom among despotisms.
A Marshall plan for emerging Arab democracies is needed. Canada should work with its allies and other donors, to help Egypt realize its goals of democratic reform, within a short period of time. Canada should nurture a political climate that will optimize the conditions under which we can work with the Egyptians and others to create rapid change.
Canada has created innovative foreign-aid programs in the past in Egypt. It supported a fund that gave micro-loans to female entrepreneurs. It supported, with UNESCO, girls' education. It has the know-how to help strengthen civil society. Food aid and other subsidies will continue to be needed. No nascent democracy will maintain the support of the people if life becomes meaner and harsher. People need to wake up with hope.
Canada maintains that it wishes to project its democratic values abroad. Indeed, it is doing so in Libya. All four parties supported Canada's military role in protecting Libyans from a desperate tyrant and supporting a tenuous rebellion. The unanimity shows this country's deep interest in democracy promotion, particularly in a region struggling to emerge from repression, which has had limited growth in science, in the arts, in business.
The mosque was often the only place for the expression denied in other realms. No wonder religion and radicalism have become so intertwined. And then the repression was positioned - in Egypt, with its 30-year emergency law, and elsewhere - as an answer to the radicalism. In the long term, ending repression is the best way to deny the radicals the ground on which they stand.
In the short term, uncertainty reigns. Egypt has maintained a stable, if cold, peace with Israel for more than three decades. The people, aroused and giving voice to their feelings, will surely have something to say about that.
But no region can be freeze-dried in time, and stagnation had its own dangers. In the long run, democracies tend to get along best with other democracies. Canada and the West have a stake in the change that has begun in the Arab world. A world of spreading democracy is a safer, more prosperous world.
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