Condi’s rock’n’roll approach has been and gone. Let’s try Benita’s slow waltz

In Egypt the US has retreated from its push for democracy in the Arab world. Europe should step into the breach
In a poor quarter of Cairo, down narrow dirt roads in which goats feed on scraps, I am taken to the bare, crowded but carefully kept apartment of a friendly greengrocer, whose extended family sleeps four or five to a room. He introduces me to his numerous nieces and nephews, and finally to a grinning tousle-haired boy called Usama. Usama is three years old, so our conversation is not extensive, but he has stuck in my mind ever since.
One way of thinking about the future of the Arab world, and what we in more fortunate parts might do to influence it, is to ask where the little bright-eyed Usama of Rod el-Farag will be in 20 years’ time. Will he have enough to eat? An education? A job? Will he have become a militant activist of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned, shadowy but popular rival to the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak? And if he has, what will it mean by then to be a Muslim Brother? Or will he, despairing of his prospects at home in Egypt, be trying to smuggle himself across the Mediterranean as an illegal immigrant to Italy, in one of many waves of boat people met with hostility by radicalised, increasingly xenophobic and anti-Muslim European societies?

The answer to this question will depend mainly on the Egyptians themselves – and on choices made by people across the Arab lands. You cannot pass many hours here without encountering the unshakable conspiratorial conviction that the west is to blame for everything that is wrong in the Middle East (starting with Israel). The truth is that Usama’s future, and that of the more than 400 million mainly young Arabs who are likely to be around in 20 years’ time, is 80% up to the governments and people here and only 20% up to all the powers outside. But still it’s worth asking how the region’s two main western partners, the US and the EU, can best use the limited influence we do have to encourage desirable change in a country like Egypt.

One American approach has been tried by the Bush administration over the past three years, and has already failed. A longer-term European approach is about to start next week, with the endorsement of an EU-Egypt Action Plan within the framework of what is called the European Neighbourhood Policy. But first, the American failure.

I’m here to deliver a public lecture at the American University in Cairo, an institution founded early in the last century and educating mainly Egyptian students. In June 2005, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, delivered a feisty public lecture at this same university, in which she called for democratic reform here as an example to the whole Arab world. Egypt was to be a showcase for the promotion of democracy, adopted by the Bush administration as a central foreign policy theme of its second term. Partly responding to American pressure, Mubarak had announced the first multiple-candidate presidential election in his then 24 (now 26) years in power, and the Kifaya (Enough!) rainbow coalition of opposition groups and the Muslim Brotherhood had taken to the streets in large numbers to seize the new freedom. After the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon, was there to be a scarab revolution in Egypt?

But although the banned Muslim Brotherhood did get 88 seats in parliament (with their candidates all standing as independents), Mubarak managed to keep the lid on the cauldron and to get more than comfortably re-elected. He subsequently imprisoned Ayman Nour, a leading politician who had had the temerity to run against him. Despite western protests, Nour is still in jail. While the government does not touch those 88 MPs, many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading activists and even business backers are in prison. Some are now being dragged before military tribunals.

And where is Washington’s decisive voice? Secular, Muslim and Coptic opposition activists all tell me that American pressure for further democratisation in Egypt dramatically declined last year. The Bush administration apparently now felt it needed all the support it could get from “moderate Arab leaders”, given the bloody mess in Iraq. It also took fright at the fact that Islamists were doing so well in the elections that Washington had pushed for, whether it was Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. And the Mubarak government skilfully played on this fear, as it has for a long time. Early last year, at a press conference after a meeting with her Egyptian counterpart, Rice still talked about democracy and reform in Egypt. Early this year, after another meeting between the two foreign ministers, democracy was not mentioned at all. In practice, the American push for rapid democratisation in Egypt has been abandoned.

Enter, stage left, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European commissioner for external relations and neighbourhood policy, dressed all in white (so far as I can tell from the photograph in the Egyptian Mail) and bearing not a clarion call for democracy but a 40-page bureaucratic document entitled EU-Egypt Joint Action Plan, full of seemingly anodyne statements of good intentions and covering almost every aspect of EU-Egypt relations. The contrast in styles is total. But might Benita and the EU succeed where Condi and the US failed? Or at least, might they do a little better?

The action plan is a framework in which the EU can talk about almost anything with the Egyptian authorities, including human rights, prison conditions and press freedom. As in the “Helsinki process” between western and eastern Europe in the last years of the cold war, it generously takes the government at its word – and hopes then to keep the government to it. Everything now depends on how European institutions and national governments fill this framework with life. As well as helping the Egyptian government along the path of economic reform, down which it is already energetically marching, are they prepared to ask the hard questions about specific human rights cases? Will they keep working away at strengthening the ligaments of pluralism in the Egyptian state (which is by no means monolithic) and in civil society? Will Europe have the imagination to spin a web of human contacts across the Mediterranean – for example, offering scholarships to large numbers of Egyptian students, scholars, writers and journalists – knowing that in the long term this will leaven Egyptian society with new experiences and ideas?

The danger is that this will remain just a paper facade, behind which 27 European governments will go on pursuing their own national and commercial interests, while Eurocrats concentrate on purely technocratic issues. And unlike with Turkey, the EU does not have the giant carrot of prospective membership to hold out to Egypt. Yet there is still an opportunity here to do something more strategic than Europe has ever done before.

On the EU’s recent form, I wouldn’t put the chances of success for Benita’s waltz all that much higher than for Condi’s rock’n’roll. But if you look at the possible futures of Usama, you will see that Europe has an even more vital interest in this country and this region than does the US. So it’s worth a try – for Usama’s sake, and for ours.