By Andres Oppenheimer

Here is an interesting idea that is drawing attention in U.S. foreign policy circles -- help Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the Arab world learn some valuable lessons from Latin America's most successful transitions to democracy.

Sergio Bitar, a Chilean left-of-center politician who held several cabinet jobs in his country and has just returned from a one-week working visit to Egypt, made that point in a speech to the Inter-American Dialogue think tank here on Wednesday.

Bitar and Genaro Arriagada, a fellow member of the opposition coalition that defeated late Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite, traveled to Egypt at the invitation of the National Democratic Institute to meet with top Egyptian politicians and tell them about their experiences in steering Chile toward a vibrant -- and economically successful -- democracy.

While there are differences between Pinochet and recently-toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, as well as between the ways in which both were ousted, there are several things that Egypt could learn from the Chilean case, Bitar said. Among the most important:

-- Don't panic: Much like the voices of reason prevailed in post-Pinochet Chile, moderates are likely to prevail in Egypt.

"My talks in Cairo with leaders of Egypt's major political and social forces allow me to say that there are favorable conditions in Egypt for a democratization process that is both civic and secular,'' said Bitar. While many Western policy makers fear a deviation to fundamentalist Islam or chaos, "these risks seem to me highly improbable," he added.

When I asked him in an interview afterward what leads him to be so optimistic, Bitar -- who met among others with leaders of the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement in Cairo -- said the Muslim Brotherhood has reiterated its decision to become a political party, won't present a presidential candidate for the elections scheduled for later this year, and their leaders have significantly less popular support than other Egyptian politicians.

-- Urgently form a political coalition: In Chile, one of the major reasons behind the success of the left-of-center governments that succeeded Pinochet was that they united in a coalition, which started with 17 parties and eventually was reduced to four member parties. In Egypt, there are now about 10 political parties and several movements that -- unless they unite -- will have a hard time negotiating a common democratic agenda with the military. Disarray could even give the military a pretext to stay in power, he said.

"The real danger in Egypt is that the transition gets stalled because of the weakness and dispersion of emerging democratic forces," Bitar said. "The fact is that, today, total power rests in the hands of the military. Although they have said that their stay in power will be brief, there is always the risk of extension."

The longer the military run day-to-day operations of government agencies, the more difficult it will be for political organizations to act and expand, and the more potential for conflict there will be. "Currently, because democratic forces do not have a common voice, military consultations with civilians have been discretionary and informal, which generates suspicion and distrust between all sides," he said.

-- Create Truth and Reconciliation Commission, such as that created in Chile after Pinochet and later emulated in South Africa after the apartheid regime to avoid vigilante justice, and to channel all human rights accusation through the judiciary.

Bitar's advice to the United States and Europe: don't try to influence the process with behind-the-scenes pressures to exclude any political actor, because any such efforts would most likely backfire.

My opinion: I agree with most of Bitar's points, especially on Egypt's need to create a political coalition to negotiate with the military. But I would add another very important lesson that Egypt could learn from Chile: don't try to destroy absolutely everything that was done by the old regime.

One of the secrets of Chile's democratic and economic success -- Chile has reduced poverty from more than 40 percent of the population to 14 percent over the past 20 years -- was that the coalition that took over after Pinochet's dictatorship preserved some of the economic and foreign policies that had worked during the military regime, and replaced all others. It would be smart for Egypt and other Arab countries emerging from dictatorships to do the same.


Available at

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World

Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (The Contemporary Middle East)

Enemies of Intelligence

The End of History and the Last Man

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?

Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

The Great Gamble

At War with the Weather: Managing Large-Scale Risks in a New Era of Catastrophes

Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century

Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East

Uprising: Will Emerging Markets Shape or Shake the World Economy


Copyright © The Miami Herald

World - Egypt and Tunisia Could Learn From Chile's Transition | Global Viewpoint