David Cameron stops off in Egypt
by Paul Goodman
David Cameron's beginning a series of middle east visits with a hastily-arranged stop-off in Egypt today. He'll apparently be the first foreign leader to visit since the overthrow of Mubarak. At first glance, this looks (at least to some) like a golden opportunity to celebrate democracy, denounce autocracy, and proclaim the benefit of liberal societies - stable institutions, the rule of law, free markets, a vibrant civil society, and all the rest of it. A second, harder look reveals that it's all not quite that simple.
Of course the Prime Minister should suggest that democracy's the best system of government, and of course Britain must accept that parts of the middle east, including Egypt, may be on the way to it (and if they aren't, there's little that we can do about it, though we must certainly not back the Islamists). He must make the most of being the first government leader to call since the recent eruption. But the trip provokes some questions.
Such as: what's our future policy? Are we pro-democracy in the region, or not? If we are, what's that imply for our relationship with allies that aren't democracies, such as Jordan and Morocco (let alone Saudi Arabia)? Where do we stand on arms sales (to which this tour was originally linked, at least in part)? In Opposition, Cameron and Hague's clear aim was to shift foreign policy from pushing neo-conservative change to promoting trade. Is that changing?
The Prime Minister had a choice. He could have ducked out of dropping into Egypt altogether. Or he could take the bolder decision, and go. Not visiting would have aroused at least as many questions as visiting, and I think he's made the right decision. There's also a case for arguing that it's good for him to be associated in Egypt with change, although I doubt very much whether the trip will last long enough or get covered enough for it to make any real difference to anything.
As Bahrain trembles and Libya burns, there are four possibilities for the region. The first is that less changes than meets the eye: the military, for example, keep power in Egypt. The second is that it begins a slow transition to liberal democracy. The third is that a series of Islamist states emerge, looking at best like Turkey (or rather where Turkey seems to be going), and at the worst like Iran. The fourth is that national differences, regional divisions and civil strife prevent any pattern from emerging at all. It's simply too early to say, as Cameron knows very well.