The Inside Agenda Blog

Egypt and beyond: holding others to our standards

by Daniel Kitts Friday November 25, 2011

Looking at how Tahrir Square in Cairo looks virtually the same now as it did in February when Egyptians successfully got long-time president Hosni Mubarak to resign, I come to the same conclusion that many others do: Democracy is hard.

The crowds in Tahrir were jubilant nine months ago when Mubarak resigned. Now they're back, bitterly disappointed in the military officers who took Mubarak's place.

Democracy is hard. We've heard that many times over the past decade as countries that powerful people hoped would soon become beacons of democracy -- think Afghanistan and Iraq -- faltered. And it is true: It took the United States 11 years after it declared independence from Britain to enact a constitution; much longer to abolish slavery; much longer still to extend equal rights to non-whites. Canada had its own problems getting to where it is today. As just one example, women weren't officially considered "persons" under the law until 62 years after Confederation.

So it's only fair that we be patient. My question is, "how patient?"

I am not suggesting we give up on the people of Tahrir Square or Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon. And while change is often slow and involves painful compromises, that doesn't mean change isn't worthwhile. In fact, when change happens too quickly -- think the French Revolution -- the results are often bad for almost everybody. I'm just wondering by what standards can we reasonably judge change in other parts of the world. Because while we can't expect change overnight, looking back at our past is probably not the best guide for how quickly change should happen today.

It is true that the United States, Canada and other wealthy countries took a long time getting to where they are now. But today's emerging countries have something that our country and others like it did not: Our example. By our example, I don't mean that the wealthy west is a "shining city on a hill" to be held in awe by our less fortunate neighbours. What I mean is that there was really no "case study" to fall back on when the first modern democracies emerged more than 200 years ago. Today, one would hope that countries trying to develop democracy today can look at our example -- not only what we did right but what we did wrong -- and learn how to get there faster than we did.

This also applies to another area: Climate change. Here is what Chinese diplomat He Yafei said to U.S. President Barack Obama and key European leaders during the failed 2009 Copenhagen climate protocol negotiations: "People tend to forget where it is from. In the past 200 years of industrialization developed countries contributed more than 80 per cent of emissions. Whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing."

The implication is: the West got rich burning carbon, so it should be up to western countries to fix this problem and China, India and other developing countries should be able to get rich burning carbon now.

That argument works up to a point. Clearly the developed countries are more responsible for spewing carbon into the air than poorer nations (and in fact the developed nations were willing to commit to steeper targets than what they were asking of China and other similar countries). But when western nations started burning coal in the 1700s, no one had any idea that it could affect the climate. Nor did they have access to modern technologies that can increase energy efficiency and generate electricity without fossil fuels. So the Chinese and others do not have the excuse of ignorance and lack of alternatives that developed nations had centuries ago.

In other words, while it would be wrong to judge the progress of developing countries by the standards of 21st century Canada, it would also be wrong to judge their progress by the standards of 19th century Canada.

So what is fair? How do we gauge reasonable progress in parts of the world less fortunate than our own? Do you think that most Canadians have reasonable expectations about change in other parts of the world? If in 25 years Egypt was more democratic than it is now but still far less democratic than Canada is now, would that be acceptable progress to you? I'd be interested to read your thoughts on these questions and others raised in this post.

Daniel Kitts can be followed on Twitter.


Photo credit: Tahrir Square image courtesy of Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters/Guardian News and Media