There is a time to speak and a time to listen. After visiting Egypt and Tunisia over the past 10 days, I am convinced that the best thing we can do is to listen. What matters now is what the people of Egypt are saying, and what kind of reforms the people of Tunisia are seeking.
In the era of instant communication, the temptation is always to respond instantly: to speak too much and to listen too little. I went to Tunis where I met groups that had never been allowed to be in the same room before; and to Cairo where I met the young people who had been in Tahrir Square.
My aim was to listen and this is what I heard: “This is our country and our revolution. We want real change — and for the system to recognize the significance of the change.” Also: “This is the beginning. We need to take time to get the transition right.” And: “We want help. To ensure we get the first real election of a ruler, but more than that, to get genuine democracy — not just on the day we cast our ballots, but the weeks and months after that too.” “We want jobs, economic opportunities and social justice. Only then can we be really free.”
Listening, of course, does not exclude the need to quickly help countries start their journey to democracy. The E.U. will support the transitions now underway — such as bringing back tourism and providing extra money for quick-impact projects — roads, schools, energy — so that people feel change is real.
Some ask whether we should have acted sooner, opposing authoritarian regimes instead of cooperating with them. It is a fair question. There is no easy solution to the dilemma of when and how to engage with such regimes — and when and how to isolate them. For decades the general rule has been to isolate regimes that defy the international community in specific ways. Along with most of the world, the E.U. has imposed sanctions on Iran and North Korea to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, it has been standard practice to maintain diplomatic and trading relations with countries whose domestic systems of governance we may dislike, aiming to encourage them over time to change their behavior.
Indeed, in the case of Libya, the Qaddafi regime was brought in from the cold when, among other things, it abandoned its quest for weapons of mass destruction. Might Qaddafi have been brought down years ago had we not offered him the carrot of trade and investment in return for these concessions? Perhaps. But I am not convinced the world would now be safer or the people of Libya better off had the West refused to negotiate with Qaddafi. And we must calibrate our stance when circumstances change. Hence, his outrageous behavior in the past few days demands we send him back into the cold.
There is a further point. Were the European Union to isolate every government that fails to live up to the principles of liberal democracy, we would face accusations of political imperialism. It is better to proclaim the principles of democracy, but deal with the world as it is.
That is how the West behaved toward the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the same time we engaged governments and supported groups that promoted democratic change from within. This meant that when the Wall fell, we had the connections as well as the ambition to help the countries of Eastern Europe move rapidly toward democracy, the rule of law and greater economic prosperity.
We have the experience to help every country that asks us now to help them make the journey to democracy, for 10 of our own members states have made precisely that journey in the past 20 years.
However, if we offer help only while the world’s media are paying attention, we shall fail. The European Union is in this for the long haul. We are determined to help Tunisia, Egypt and other countries not just to start their journey toward democracy, but to complete it. We are listening now not to avoid action, but to make sure the action we take over the coming months and years is effective.
That will involve detailed, unglamorous, work on the ground — with civil servants, local communities, the police, army and judiciary — laying the foundations of deep democracy and then building it up, brick-by-brick.
For me, nothing is more exciting than to see a new democracy emerge. But I shall have no complaints if everything goes so smoothly that the world’s media, denied the drama of conflict and catastrophe, grow bored and go home.
By Catherine Ashton, high representative for foreign affairs and security policy of the European Union.