Egypt and the outside powers

Now it is clear that Hosni Mubarak’s three decade presidency of Egypt cannot survive much longer, outside powers are visibly positioning themselves for the next phase. Hubristic temptations are clear but not everybody’s falling for them.

The last few days have witnessed two interesting statements about the Egyptian revolution by representatives of outside powers: one from Frank Wisner, President Obama’s special envoy to Mubarak, a former US Ambassador to Egypt; the other from Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative.

The temptation and the warning

In the my last blog entry I used the grisly example of the Algerian civil war 1992-2003 to illustrate the dangers of outside powers taking ill-informed, poorly thought through, unprincipled positions. I picked up the language of “orderly transition” that the US State department and all of Europe’s foreign ministries are using and said that, however moderate and commonsensical it sounded, there is great danger if the outsider starts trying to fix the terms of transition.


Right on cue, up pops Wisner to tell the world’s leaders via the Munich International Conference on Security Policy that Mubarak should stay in order to steer the changes needed for a democratic transition.

We could start by asking an experienced diplomat what evidence there is in President Mubarak’s approximately 60-year military and political career to indicate he has the knowledge, skill or inclination to steer a transition towards democracy.

Representative or what?

Or like much of the media coverage across the weekend, we could focus on whether Wisner’s view is representative of the Obama administration. The US State Department said Wisner’s role as envoy was short-term and done with and that his views were his own and not coordinated with the US government. Interestingly, though, the State Department, while disowning Wisner and his view, did not disagree with it.

Indeed, I don’t think Wisner’s view represented any departure from Obama’s stated view that Mubarak should “make the right decision” and start the transition “now.” It’s one of the downsides of Obama’s ringing tones that what sounds grand when he says it can look vague when you read it and permits many different interpretations – probably deliberately. 

Now, it is not wrong for the American President to desist from laying down the law, whether to another President or to a mass citizens’ movement. And if that non-interventionist principle is expressed in Obama’s policy, that is admirable. 

But his words are also compatible with a distinctly interventionist policy that could include a detailed agenda for what should now happen and a readiness to put some muscle there to back it.

My last blog on Algeria was all about this. Wisner precisely illustrates the persistent Western flaw of wanting to shape the terms of a democratic transition, not according to its values, but according to a messy compromise between its values, interests and tomorrow’s headlines.


It is difficult nonetheless to make the non-interventionist principle chime with being active in support for democracy. EU High Rep Catherine Ashton had a go in the Guardian on Friday.

It’s interesting to follow the comment thread on an article like that because it gives you a sense of what the EU is up against in Britain. The vast bulk of the early comments were all about knocking the EU and barely any engaged with Ashton’s arguments. When they did, they mostly missed the point.

Ashton’s starting point was unusual and refreshing because she began with history and, given that history, the need for humility. Indeed, Europe has been telling the Middle East how to run its affairs and very often forcing its preferences upon the region for just over two centuries. It began pretty much as a sideshow in a European war, when a French General called Napoleon Bonaparte defeated and destroyed the power of the Mamelukes who had run Egypt as a tributary state of the Ottoman Empire. And after those two centuries, for the EU’s High Representative to say, hang on, we should be careful here given our bloody awful record is a fine thing.

The position Ashton’s article briefly outlines is that the EU wants to support a genuine democratic transition. As she points out, this means more than having an election every now and again. As the blog rats in the Guardian’s comment thread pointed out, it wouldn’t be at all bad for there to be a bit more democracy in the EU and in, for example, the process that appoints the High Representative. But that doesn’t make the High Representative wrong about democracy in the Middle East.

Deep democracy?

Personally I think it’s a bit of a shame that she and her advisers have chosen to hang the tag of ‘deep democracy’ round the neck of this policy because the alliteration makes it sound a bit too flash and easy, which is the opposite of what she means. But I think it is pretty clear what she means and in broad terms it’s the right policy direction. The devil will lie not only in the details but in the durability of the EU’s commitment.

The challenge here is, in part, the challenge of Algeria in 1992 or equally the challenge for the EU when Hamas won the Palestine Authority elections in 2006: what do you do if the election produces what you think is the wrong result?

There is only one democratic answer and the EU – like everybody else – had better be sure it knows it.

The EU’s staying power

But part of the challenge lies also in simply staying the course – not being blown off track by changing political winds and the tides of fortune or fashion.

Here, as Cathy Ashton rightly emphasised near the end of the article, is one of the EU’s great strengths – its staying power: ‘The EU is perhaps not always the fastest on the way in, but often the one that stays the longest.’

Turning words into Action Service

So Ashton has said pretty much the right things – and certainly is much more right than the envoy-or-not of the US President. She has brought a degree of clarity to the difficult questions of exactly how outsiders should shape their policies and actions in order to support liberty and democracy without imposing themselves. And she’s laid down a marker.

What will now give her words the staying power that is one of the EU’s main distinguishing features? What is needed is a well established External Action Service. It is not ultimately even the best crafted diplomatic initiative that will define the success or failure of the EU’s High Representative but the strength of the institutions that are now being built.

As it turns out, democracy in the Middle East is the EEAS’s first big challenge and may be its defining moment.

2 thoughts on “Egypt and the outside powers

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Egypt and the outside powers | Dan Smith's blog --

  2. Ashton often says pretty much the right thing; but what about backing it up with action? Egypt and Tunisia are, of course not the only countries in the Middle East that need to exercise the minds of our our political leaders. Israel and Palestine have been, rightly, on the agenda of the EU for decades. And that conflict is likely to be affected by what happens in neighbouring countries.
    The EUs rhetoric in relation to Egypt and Tunisia will be judged – in the region and elsewhere – by a comparison with its rhetoric and action vis-a-vis Israel. Deep democracy – or whatever other tag we want to give it – doesn’t just have meaning in countries moving from dictatorships (supported by the West in most instances) to democracy. It also should carry meaning for countries such as Israel and Palestine.
    If the EU doesn’t get that right now it will lose credibility in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East very fast, however much it wants to be the ‘stayer’ and ‘supporter’.

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