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Jeffrey Simpson

Why did Ottawa drag its feet on Mubarak? Add to ...

The Egyptian revolution, a mass people’s movement, represents something democrats everywhere should celebrate.

It’s too bad, therefore, that the Harper government, once again seeing the Middle East through the exclusive prism of Israel’s interest, remained throughout so hesitant, cautious and, frankly, on the wrong side of history in commenting on Egyptian developments.

Better the dictatorship we know than the democracy we don’t seemed to be the Israeli and Canadian position. Yes, the right words were said in Ottawa about a transfer to democracy, eventually and with due regard to order. But that way of thinking meant proceeding according to the time frame and initiative of a discredited president and his allies to whom he’d turned over the process for “reform.” It displayed an ineptitude that, unfortunately, has characterized too much of the Harper government’s foreign policy.

Hosni Mubarak, who reluctantly resigned as president on Friday, did so in the face of overwhelming opposition to his continuation in office. He had tried to forestall his departure by offering small concessions, but these proved to be utterly out of touch with what the people wanted. The people’s will, peacefully expressed in the streets, prevailed.

Canada should have stood four-square for democracy and all that underpins it, while acknowledging democracy’s uncertainties, messiness and, yes, risks – without the equivocations and conditions the government attached to its positions.

After all, if Egypt comes through this people’s movement for change to a civilian government with legitimacy, that would be the best of all outcomes, not only for Egypt but for the Arab world. That outcome is the one Canada should have supported from the beginning.

Egypt doesn’t have deep democratic traditions, although secular elites have been involved in working toward democracy for a long time. And since the military, for better or worse, is the country’s largest and most respected institution, it will obviously have to play a role in guiding the country to democracy. It was to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that Mr. Mubarak turned over power on Friday.

Every country has its own traditions, culture, history and economy, but, if Egypt were looking for inspiration, it could do worse than use Turkey as an example. There, a blend of moderate Islam and democracy has brought political stability and economic recovery, and a strong military that’s finally come to accept democracy.

Fears that democracy will unleash Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, with some of its extremist Islam, can’t simply be dismissed. But most sober analysts don’t see the Brotherhood taking over, like some kind of Egyptian Bolsheviks replacing the naive Mensheviks now clogging the streets of Cairo and other cities.

The Brotherhood, forced underground, is perhaps more organized and coherent than other forces whose weakness is the price for the Mubarak regime’s repression of political competition. The Brotherhood, which didn’t organize this uprising, will play a role in what unfolds in Egypt, the issue being which one and within what rules.

The move to democracy – in Egypt and elsewhere – is by definition destabilizing, because it means moving from one regime to another. It dislocates and reallocates power. It creates or unleashes new expectations, fires emotions and sets up new conflicts. Social media, with all their unpredictability and extraordinary reach, proved to have revolutionary potential.

The move to democracy often catches people by surprise. Even people in the affected country pinch themselves. Think of the Philippines or Ukraine or Indonesia or South Africa or Tunisia, where sham democracies or dictatorships yielded not to perfection but to more democratic regimes. In these and other cases, skeptics said the movement to democracy wouldn’t or couldn’t happen. They were wrong.

It’s not an overstatement to suggest that the courage on display in Egypt offers a historic opportunity for that country’s people and, by extension, for those in other parts of the Arab world. Dictators and autocrats from Rabat to Amman and beyond, beware.

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