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British politician Lord David Owen spoke to a group of Egyptian journalists on Tuesday on the twin subjects of democracy and humanitarian intervention as part of a two-day workshop organized by the Heikal Foundation for Arab Journalism. The purpose of the workshop, according to eminent Egyptian journalist and foundation founder Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, is to expose young Egyptian journalists to new ideas and influential political leaders.
“Journalism isn't just a job,” Heikal said. “It is taking part in a dialogue. So the journalist must be educated in politics and culture.”
Owen, in Cairo to help foster that dialogue, was first elected to British parliament in 1966 and served as a member of the House of Commons intermittently until 1992, when he was elevated to the House of Lords. He served as foreign minister from 1977 to 1979 and as EU diplomat in the Balkans in the mid-1990s.
Owen began his talk by stating that he did not intend to tell Egyptians how to build their own democracy. “I’m from a country that has had more influence on Egypt than it should have,” he said, referring to Britain’s former colonial presence. “I’m not telling you what the best system is.”
Sitting on a panel flanked by Heikal and Hani Shakrallah, executive director of the Heikal Foundation, Owen shared his perspective on democracy, which he views as an "evolutionary process." He sees reason for optimism in Egypt’s evolution, particularly since 2005 parliamentary elections, when opposition groups -- especially the Muslim Brotherhood -- made modest gains against the ruling National Democratic Party.
“It was a good thing,” Owen said of the election. “You can’t have democracy without pluralism.” Political gains by the brotherhood, he said, implied a growing trend towards pluralism in the Egyptian politic arena.
He is not concerned by the challenge that the brotherhood’s rise may pose to secularism in Egypt. Secularism, he said, is not essential for a functioning democracy as long as there is tolerance and pluralism. Most important in Owen’s estimation are term limits on the executive branch.
“You will have to come to a stage where you can look at how long a president can stay in power,” he told his audience. President Hosni Mubarak has been in office since 1981 and is currently serving his sixth six-year term. Owen said this was a common practice in post-colonial states in Africa, but also pointed out that the United States did not have term limits for the presidency until after Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four consecutive terms in the first half of the twentieth century.
The final pillar on which a solid democracy rests is an independent parliament with the ability to challenge the executive branch, said Owen. “I’ve heard from Egyptians that parliament here has some teeth,” he said, before quickly adding that they were “not sharp teeth.”
Increasing oversight into the way money is spent by the state could also serve to strengthen parliament by reducing corruption, Owen suggested. He also said the law must ensure that MPs cannot be arrested for their opinions -- though they should not be exempt from criminal charges.
“These are evolutionary changes,” he said. “They may take as long as 20 years or more.”
The second session of Tuesday's workshop focused on international relations and the question of military intervention on humanitarian grounds.
Owen recounted his experiences from 1992 to 1995 when he served as EU negotiator in the Balkans. He spoke of the ineffectiveness of the United Nation during the siege of Sarajevo that left 12,000 dead and the organization’s failure to prevent Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. So-called "safe havens” created by the UN at the time, he said, were “pure humbug from the beginning.”
Furthermore, the Europe-brokered settlement of the Balkan conflict left the region divided, according to Owen.
The war in Iraq that began in 2003 and continues today provided Owen with his second case against humanitarian intervention. “The 2003 intervention was portrayed by the Americans and British as a humanitarian intervention,” he said, although the justification soon changed to Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
“Wars that start with one justification and change to another are usually not very successful,” Owen said. He also called the planning and execution of the war “incompetent.” He hopes to see the eventual emergence of a stable and effective Iraqi government, although he is not particularly optimistic.
These experiences have left Owen both opposed to humanitarian intervention and with a greater respect for the UN charter, which supports the national sovereignty of all member states. “I used to be a strong interventionist, but we just can't do it,” he said.
Owen is scheduled to deliver a public lecture on Wednesday, 14 October, at 7:30pm at Oriental Hall in the American University in Cairo's downtown campus.