It's always fascinating going to Egypt, which I have visited many times since my first trip in 1998. The last trip I undertook at the end of March was easily the most interesting. Last year, I was elected as a Member of the British Parliament for Spelthorne in Surrey, so it was interesting to visit Egypt as a newly elected politician myself during a period of political transition in the country.
I was part of a very small delegation, but this was probably an advantage as we got to see many people on the ground in Cairo - student activists, politicians of the Mubarak regime, business leaders and opinion formers. All these people were very hospitable and open to us. It was rather like being a detective and asking lots of different people their views on the same incident.
The revolution of 25 January, propelled by young activists using the internet, is without a parallel in the history of the modern world. Nothing should make us forget this. The ensuing period of political uncertainty will be a difficult one for Egypt. Although people have guessed about what will happen in the future, nobody can speak with any certainty about what that future holds. The referendum itself on constitutional change was another remarkable milestone in the Arab world. Eighteen million people queued for hours in order to exercise their vote, with remarkably few disturbances. It was a real credit to the Egyptian people that this referendum took place so peacefully.
What then were my thoughts about the general situation as I sat on the plane on the way back to London? I thought that the level of political engagement was encouraging: as I have observed, millions voted in the referendum. When one person exercises absolute power for such a long time, it is understandably difficult for a plural society to emerge quickly Yet I was surprised at the lack of focus and organisation which most of the parties showed. It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood were organised and had a sense of direction, yet the other parties seemed to be in a state of disarray. Parties are in the process of being set up, but in many cases we don’t even know their names. Any idea of a broad philosophy, to which a party may subscribe, is largely absent. A Parliamentary colleague of mine was heard to ask, “Which are the centre right parties in Egypt?” You only need to spend a day speaking to politicians and activists in Egypt’s capital to see how absurdly premature this question is.
After 30 years of one-man rule it is perhaps hardly surprising that political parties in Egypt should be in such a rudimentary state. When one person exercises absolute power for such a long time, it is understandably difficult for a plural society to emerge quickly.
Despite this I was surprised at the basic level of political discussion. People are not really talking about policies and their strategic vision for the country. Discussion tends to revolve around personalities, around rumours of splits and factions, rather than actual policies relating to the economy, to public services, and to Egypt’s position in the world.
As I have said, all this perhaps was to be expected. But it is the duty of all those Egyptians who wish democracy to grow and thrive in their country to engage fully with party politics, to form parties, to adopt ideological platforms and to engage in public debate with their fellow citizens.
For what it’s worth, my opinion is that Egypt’s economic situation is the most pressing problem affecting the country. There is a real danger that a significant downturn in the Egyptian economy will radicalise the mass of the population who would then be spurred by hunger and the frustration of their hopes of what the revolution would bring. As a British politician, and a friend of Egypt, I think the West should do all it can to provide financial assistance to Egypt in this uncertain time. I have even tabled written questions relating to these issues for our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to address.
If the economic situation is stable, there is every reason to believe that a genuine democracy can take root in Egypt. It is necessary, however, for the political parties to get going. I was struck by the defeatism and pessimism of those who supported the “no” vote in the referendum campaign. They seemed to think that eight months was too short a time to prepare and organise a political party. Harold Wilson, a former British Prime Minister, once said that “a week is a long time in politics”; eight months must surely be an eternity. In December 2007, Barack Obama seemed to have no chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton. Yet in June 2008, he had won the nomination, and was on course for the Presidency.
It is true that the established parties in Egypt have a massive advantage, but there is no reason why opposition parties cannot make some headway, and establish a base from which they can build in the future. Voltaire said that “the best is the enemy of the good.” Obviously, a year would have been better than eight months, but people should not use the seemingly short period of eight months as an excuse not to participate enthusiastically in the unique opportunity afforded by the elections this year.
Kwasi Kwarteng is a Member of the British Parliament and author of Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacy in the Modern World (2011)