When I was in Egypt last year, it was pretty obvious how tired the middle classes had become of the stagnancy of Mubarak's rule. It was not that people were living in dire poverty: rather it was the squalour of the public space, the creaking infrastructure, the rubbish-strewn Nile on the outskirts of Cairo, the poor standard of public services, the turgid nature of the state-owned media and the lack of any outlets to let off steam. Visiting the nation's celebrated antiquities, the contrast with the remarkable civilisation developed at the time of the Pharoahs was stark. So while the scale of the recent protests has been remarkable, the fact that they have happened is less surprising, including the mass gatherings today. And while Britain and the US have understandable anxieties about the future of the Middle East peace process and the impact on Israel, there should be no equivocation on the importance of Egypt having the chance to become a democracy.
Nobody is suggesting there should be elections tomorrow, though Mubarak would have helped himself a lot had he not so blatantly rigged last year's polls. But the military can act as a guarantor for democratic parliamentary elections on a fixed date not too far in the future, as well as the planned Presidential polls. The months in between should be a time not only to restore order and faith in the Egyptian economy, especially tourism, but as importantly to establish a free media, democratic political parties and a proper constitution that guarantees those freedoms. Instead of the disappointing (if understandable) equivocation that has come from Washington and Whitehall, we need now to hear a firm understanding that it is indeed the Egyptian people who should decide their futures, and that they will receive whatever help they need from international organisations, including those in Britain, Europe and the US, dedicated to the promotion and development of democracy. We must stop any pretence that the will of the Egyptian people is embodied in the person of Hosni Mubarak. There is self-interest here too: unless we adopt that approach, we lose whatever dwindling diplomatic influence we may hope for in post-Mubarak Egypt.