As upheaval continues across the Middle East, the path towards democracy is far from clear. A civil war is raging in Libya as protests become deadly in Syria. The leader
of Yemen is negotiating his removal from power, and Saudi Arabian forces have been called in to help “maintain order” on the streets of Bahrain.
Eighteen days of protests, mainly focused around Tahir Square in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, brought an end to former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship. Around two-thirds of Egypt’s population is under 30, meaning they were only just born the last time there were any sort of elections in the country.
In the midst of all this upheaval, two officials from Chile – a country that became a symbol of Latin America’s effort to transition to democratic government after years of dictatorship - travelled to Egypt to discuss the difficult route towards democracy.
The two men, Sergio Bitar and Genaro Arriagada, held cabinet positions during Chile’s transition to democracy.
Bitar helped found the Party for Democracy (PPD), while Arriagada is a Christian Democratic Party (DC) leader and intellectual.
“We were asked to go by Ken Wollock (president of the National Democratic Institute); they were looking for people who could talk to the Egyptians, to transmit their experiences,” said Bitar in an exclusive interview with The Santiago Times.
“We met with all the political parties, and also the young people who were involved (in the protests).”
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is a non-profit organization based in the United States founded in 1983 to promote democratic practices throughout the world. They were present in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and provided assistance to the 1988 “No” plebiscite that brought the military rule to an end.
“We spoke on a number of issues, how to deal with the military, how to form coalitions, how to select candidates for the presidency,” explained Bitar.
The U.S. has been holding up the Chilean transition as a model of peaceful transition from military rule to democracy.
In his speech addressing Latin America made in Santiago last week, President Barack Obama highlighted Chile’s model, saying “At a time when people around the world are reaching for their freedoms, Chile shows that, yes, it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy - and to do so peacefully.”
Despite welcoming the opening of opportunity for democracy in Egypt, many western countries have expressed concern -although not always publicly- about who could fill the void left by Mubarak, with special concern about the potential role of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
Bitar, however, said these concerns were exaggerated.
“You are not facing a situation in Egypt that could get out of hand. Some of their organizations are weak at the moment, but they can come together, and coalesce. The Brotherhood are not, in my opinion, the radical group that some perceive they are.
They have repeated that they will not put forward a candidate for the presidency, and they are supporting the interim government.”
Many also felt that, after 30 years “with no tradition of democracy” Egyptians were not ready for immediate elections and so the military will continue as the interim government for the next six months or possibly longer.
When discussing the future path for Egypt, Bitar insisted that after so many years without democracy, coalitions were the best way to create consensus and legitimacy for the eventual new president.
Another of the issues addressed by the two Chileans was the human rights legacy of the Mubarak dictatorship and how the new civilian society is to deal with it. To build trust between the new regime and the people who suffered under the previous regime, said Bitar, “You need to distinguish between the institution and the individual who committed the crime.”
The major difference between many of the dictatorships in Latin America and those in the Middle-East, especially Egypt, is the role of the army.
In Egypt, while the army supported Mubarak, they were also not involved in any attempts to suppress the protests.
While compulsory military service in Egypt means that many in the army share the views of the protesters, the military is also extremely active in the private sector economy, selling everything from pans and appliances to tourist resorts.
Military businesses in Egypt make up 30 to 40% of the country’s economy. “The main problem with the military is power,” Bitar told The Santiago Times.
“But you can’t solve everything all at once; that would be a mistake. The military are key to this transition, but at the end of the day, they are military and shouldn’t be in government. The provision of basic goods and employment are very important for the new government and the military can be a good ally in this.”
Bitar’s trip has been deemed a success on all sides and the White House has already requested his presence in Bahrain.
Referring to Egypt, Bitar summarized, “It will be a slow process of learning, they will have lots of crises along the way, but it won’t reverse the process.”
By Mark Briggs - Santiago Times