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Steve Baker MP: Egypt teeters, exposing lessons for the UK

Under the auspices of the Iman Foundation, Syed Kamall MEP and I travelled this week to Cairo to promote pluralism and the principles of a free society. We delivered two successful seminars on democracy, freedom and tolerance - one for senior political and academic figures and one for young activists - in addition to meeting members of Egypt's political class. These seminars followed Syed's previous work in Cote d'Ivoire based on Principles for a Free Society, a short book written by British academic Dr Nigel Ashford.

Egypt has about 28 significant parties with more than a hundred further relevant registered organisations. Many seem to have coalesced around characters, not political ideas. This may be normal for a fledgling democracy but it leads to high levels of fragmentation between and within parties. For example, the Gathering Party includes Marxists and liberals, secularists, Christians and Muslims, united around a programme based on equality which may go beyond the essential moral, political and legal equality required for a free society.

Low participation is a problem and there was a sense that there is too little time to share and entrench political ideas before the coming elections. In that context, the numerous political parties find themselves weak. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood was thought by those we met to be the best organized and strongest political force and their social action projects perhaps put them ahead of rivals in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people.

There is a division between the old elites, who continue to provide leadership, and young activists, who combine exuberant, desperate optimism and a hunger for ideas with an inability to organize to deliver on their own demands.  Mass poverty and illiteracy combined with faith, or at least respect for faith leaders, tend to promote support for the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, while the established, moderate elite and an optimistic youth fear a popular victory for political Islam, they have so far been unable to create a counterbalancing force. Into this we threw three vital ideas and as many copies of Ashford's book as we had been able to carry over.

First, the idea that the dangers of democracy - the tyranny of the majority, demagoguery and special interests - must be mitigated by the classical rule of law, individual rights, limited state power and regular, free and fair elections.

Second, that freedom is the opportunity to act as you see fit, provided you do not harm others. Freedom is not power and it is not subjection to the social system and objectives preferred by paternalistic ruling class. It is not the right to oppress others. Freedom is in everyone's interests, bringing spontaneous order, prosperity and progress.

Finally, that toleration is not agreement, but refraining from the use of power against those with whom you disagree profoundly. It is not the absence of morality, or a manifestation of subjective morality, but the product of co-existing, grounded and objective moralities about which there is genuine disagreement. Toleration is an important expression of commitment to individual freedom. It is not the legal enforcement of a particular consensus about what constitutes an acceptable opinion.

I returned to the UK convinced of two things. Egypt teeters on rejecting that secular liberal democracy which might deliver freedom, which would be a tragic abandonment of the essence of the revolution. Moreover, on carefully revisiting the principles of a free society, I became more deeply convinced that, for all our relative freedom and prosperity, the UK cannot be considered a consistent embodiment of the principles of a free society, so many of which have their philosophical origins here.

Ashford's book may be downloaded free here.


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