The reactions of US and European political leaders to the democratic uprising in Egypt is dismaying but not surprising. Democracy and human rights are fine words, but other imperatives, like western economic interests in the middle east and the alliance with Israel, carry more weight. The people of Egypt are not ready to determine their own future, our leaders say; first we need many months of oversight by a government led by the man who headed the secret police for 20 years, and then, after the protests are a dim memory, we can have a properly managed “transition”.
To evaluate a course of action, however, we need an alternative—a counterfactual policy that offers a benchmark against which actual policies can be compared. What would a positive response to the situation in Egypt look like? Here is my suggestion for an ideal western statement:
1. The recent outpouring of political protest in Egypt demonstrates that the prior policies of our countries did not actually uphold the values we claim to believe in. We supported dictators and torturers and largely ignored the democratic rights of the Egyptian people, as well as the economic suffering that was endemic in a country ruled by corrupt, unaccountable elites. It would have been better if we could have reversed course on our own, but we intend to use the current upheaval as an opportunity to reexamine our motives and actions, in order to chart a course which is both ethical and practical.
2. We call for the immediate establishment of a provisional coalition government representing all sectors of Egyptian society. We will support the process for reform they agree upon, providing only that it conforms to the fundamental elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that it respect the physical security of each individual, freedoms of speech, assembly and association, and the personal rights to conscience and faith. We share the outrage felt by most Egyptians at the denial of the most minimal degree of economic opportunity to those trapped in extreme poverty and expect to work in the years to come as colleagues in the urgent business of finding solutions. We take heart at the courage and seriousness shown by the people of Egypt, and we see rebellion for democracy as an inspiring opportunity, not a threat.
3. We know from history that there is a high likelihood that nations that undergo internal revolutions will be subjected to external attack. In that light, we offer to the people of Egypt our guarantee of the integrity of its borders, a commitment we are prepared to back with military force if necessary. Furthermore, we pledge to maintain the current level of military assistance until new arrangements can be negotiated with a future democratic government. In return, we ask for two commitments on the Egyptian side: (1) The Egyptian military should remain neutral in domestic political contests, not aligning itself for or against any particular faction. It should also refrain, during the transitional process, from any actions outside Egyptian borders. Its primary mission should be to protect the rights of all Egyptians, including peaceful demonstrators and members of minority communities. (2) The Egyptian democratic process should remain demilitarized. No political faction should be permitted to maintain a paramilitary force, explicitly or otherwise. If these commitments can be upheld, the democratic moment can be transformed into a democratic era.
4. While Egypt is not a heavily indebted country, in most years it has been paying 2-3% of its GDP in debt service to foreigners. For a poor country this is a significant burden. For instance, it is more than half of Egypt’s total public spending on education. Essentially all of this debt was acquired during the period of dictatorship. While some of the credit may have been used to benefit the population, a substantial part of it found its way into the private accounts of well-connected individuals. Given this, we are prepared to begin a process of identifying odious debt—debt resulting from loans that lack legitimacy in their origination or which creditors had reason to know was intended for corrupt purposes. We will convene a body of Western and Egyptian specialists to sift through these debts and compile a list of those that should be written off. At this point, based on what we currently know, we expect that odious debt will constitute the majority of the total. While we recognize that, after years of selling and reselling these loans in international markets, it will not be easy to devise a fair basis for assigning the costs of the writedown, nonetheless we will not use this as an excuse to limit or delay it. We hope that a systematic process for writing off Egypt’s odious debt can serve as a model that can be applied to other democracies.
5. We know all too well that our past promises in the realm of foreign aid have fallen far short. We have given less than we said we would, and much of our aid was tied to purchases of our products or policies we were essentially bribing countries to support. We could announce today that all this has changed, but we would not be believed, and rightfully so. With this in mind, we pledge to work with a democratic Egypt in the international effort to construct a new, fairer and more reliable system of economic cooperation based on the principle of global public finance, the use of taxes on international transactions to finance the Millennium Development Goals and similar objectives. We see the revolution in Egypt as a call not only for the end of political repression, but also for the end of extreme poverty. These should be goals for all people everywhere.