Hesitant though I am to express my view about a country of which I know so little, I report on my reaction to much that I have been reading about Egypt in the last couple of days. There are two major impulses scattered across the airwaves but set in different combinations. This is one type of combination from a Times leader today (£):
This makes it very hard for Western policymakers: either to stand behind the current regime and alienate a generation of Egyptians and possibly its future governing class, or abandon President Mubarak and lose someone long regarded as a bulwark for peace.
Much the same thing in an editorial in The Australian:
The message is clear. So is the overwhelming need for caution, especially by the Obama administration. It is right to seek a genuinely democratic future for Egypt. But there is also need for clear-headed awareness that Islamic militants are in the wings waiting to exploit the situation and that few things could be more devastating to global security and the fight against extremism than the emergence of an Islamist regime in Cairo...
The 'tension' registered in both pieces - between looking favourably on a possible development towards democracy, on the one hand, and worrying about where this might lead, on the other, putting the wrong sort of people in power, unsettling Western foreign policy - is tilted most clearly in the latter direction by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post:
Egypt, once stable if tenuously so, has been pitched into chaos. This is the most dire prospect of them all. The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare.
... It... lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy. The next Egyptian government - or the one after - might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval.
... I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights.
If everybody cared about democratic values in the way that Richard Cohen does, wouldn't those values be up the creek? As Alex writes in the same connection, 'How, at this stage, is Egypt supposed to develop the vital institutions that support civil society without overthrowing Mubarak's regime?' How, equally, are traditions of tolerance and respect for minority rights to be developed other than by seizing such rights and others? How, after decades of dictatorship, achieve any of this without a certain amount of disorder? It is not that there aren't dangers in the situation. There are. But for those who truly care about democratic values and liberal freedoms, there is nothing for it but to recognize the positive potentialiaties alongside the dangers and to do whatever we can to encourage and support the former.
Other commentators on the situation do precisely that. It's not that they're unaware of how things might go wrong. Click through the links to come here and you'll see that they are aware of it. But they give a welcome to the democratic opportunity now opening up in Egypt and possibly more widely across the Arab world. Anne Applebaum:
Politicians like stability. Bankers like stability. But the "stability" we have so long embraced in the Arab world wasn't really stability. It was repression. The dictators we have supported, or anyway tolerated... have stayed in power by preventing economic development, silencing free speech, keeping tight control of education and above all by stamping down hard on anything resembling civil society.
We should speak directly to the Egyptian public, not only to its leaders. We should congratulate Egyptians for having the courage to take to the streets. We should smile and embrace instability. And we should rejoice - because change, in repressive societies, is good.
The spread of the contagion of protest across North Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, has not just been exhilarating. It [has] also given the lie to one of the great myths about the Muslim world – the belief that people in Muslim countries have a different mindset to those in the West, that democracy and secularism are 'Western' concepts alien to the political culture of Egypt or Jordan or Yemen. What the demonstrators in Cairo and Tunis have been demanding is not an Islamic state, but a more open, democratic society, with freedom of expression and the protection of individual liberties.
One of the most wonderful of many wonderful aspects of the anti-totalitarian uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is that they have nailed the myth that Islamism represents the "authentic" voice of the Arab street.
And Gideon Rachman:
Placed in the context of the wider debate between democracy and authoritarianism, the sight of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo demanding freedom should be immensely cheering to the west.
The uprising in Egypt is undoubtedly a dangerous moment. It is also the most hopeful event in the Arab world for decades.
The point is that nobody can foresee for a certainty where this process is heading or where it will end. But one cannot profess democratic and liberal values and shut off in advance their possible strengthening and development on the grounds that the democracy established might deliver the wrong result. The result delivered might indeed be wrong. If a people votes in politicians intent on stealing their newly won rights and liberties, that is a tragedy for them and possibly for others. But it's a risk inherent in the democratic process and has to be worn - by genuine democrats. No democrat, on the other hand, is bound by their democratic commitment to support, much less admire, the political beneficiaries of a democratic process regardless of their political complexion. If a democracy in Egypt were to put in power a new round of tyrants, repressive theocrats or what have you, then this would have to be faced and they would have to be criticized, opposed, constrained, by all legitimate methods. For now, as between that danger and the democratic possibilities, there ought to be no practical dilemma. The people on Tahrir Square deserve our support.