Wise guys not wanted

Tunisia and Egypt need to decide on new political systems – and the call for democracy is loud. Germany and many other nations would like to help. But the West must not impose its own beliefs; it can do no more than offer support.

By Hajo Lanz

Recent events in the Arab world have brought about changes that no one thought possible. Regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have been overthrown; those of Syria and Yemen are under siege. As in any time of transition, however, the ultimate outcome of these developments is uncertain. The new battle of ideas may bring progress, but it may also result in setbacks or deadlock. Each country is shaping its own destiny.

In Egypt and Tunisia in particular, the hope for more freedom, participation and pluralism must not be dashed. People need the prospect of a democracy dividend. For this purpose, the governments in the region must not just meet the demands of the demonstrators. The most important thing is to fulfil their people’s basic needs.

As democrats, we should do everything we can to assist them. We believe that the best option for all is a free and fair world in which the state fosters and protects the wellbeing of everyone in society. In this sense, our goals are broadly in line with the demands of the demonstrators in North African streets.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the potential birthplaces of a new model for future Arab democracies, we can certainly sing the praises of our democratic model. We can point to its blessings, and we can offer our support. But we cannot impose our ideas. Democracy is an important goal, but achieving it in a participatory process is equally important. People’s broad involvement needs to be ensured. The media, political parties and trade unions play key roles. In Tunisia and Egypt, however, they are currently experiencing serious transformation processes of their own.

Western nations need to accept that their efforts to pave the region’s path to prosperity, rule of law and freedom have so far borne little fruit. For too long, we tried to balance – or even play off – prosperity against our own market protection, justice and freedom against support for sinister, but predictable autocracies, freedom and mobility against isolation and illegal migration. All this must stop.

For the sake of the West’s credibility as a whole and for the sake of good neighbourly relations, European nations must adopt an honest policy. We need some kind of a “Marshall Plan for the Democratisation and Modernisation of the Mediterranean” to help to promote foreign investment in Arab countries, to furnish massive support for vocational training and to provide assistance to small and mid-sized enterprises. But as long as trade barriers remain in place, this will only be part of the answer. We need a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone.

The West certainly cannot presume to decide what is best for the Arab world, as recent events made evident in Egypt. The ostentatious announcement of a US plan to bypass Egypt’s government and distribute millions of dollars directly to local NGOs was vehemently rejected by the prospective recipients. “The West shored up the Mubarak system in the past,” was one response. “Now it is trying to tell us what to do once more.” Views like this are not expressed only by Islamist and (often left-leaning) nationalist groups. Many young democracy activists think that way too.

Two Arab societies have rid themselves of their dictators and thus acquired a new sense of self confidence. They will not let outsiders tell them which route to take. While exercising all due modesty and restraint, the West should do its very best in support of all those who have embarked on the journey to a freer society.

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