Catherine Ashton, the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, visits Egypt today. She is meeting with interim President Adly Mansour, interim Prime Minister Hezam Beblawy and other members of the interim government, and will hold talks with other political forces and representatives of civil society. Before her trip, Catherine Ashton said: “I am going to Egypt to reinforce our message that there must be a fully inclusive political process, taking in all groups which support democracy. I will underline that Egypt needs to return as rapidly as possible to its democratic transition.

Yesterday, press agency Reuters revealed, that EU envoy for the Middle East, Bernandino Leon, was close to mediating a political deal between President Morsi and the opposition parties last April.  But Mursi and his Brotherhood, reportedly, rebuffed this opportunity to bridge the deep political divide.   Following the mass protest earlier this month, the army intervened to unseat Morsi.  If Morsi would have accepted the formation of a more inclusive government, the opposition would have gone along and Morsi would still be President today.  This news put the debate about the merits of the military intervention into perspective.

The military intervention has broken the impasse but done little to reduce the divide other than to deepen it.  The challenge remains to build bridges across the divide.  Rushing into early elections, which can be expected to feed the competition and divide, may not be the wisest approach even if it would give a new government a token of legitimacy.  Stability and divide are not compatible.  To revive the economy, stability is needed.  While Lady Ashton has facilitated an important and valuable mediation process, she will have to be careful that her call for early elections could be counterproductive for achieving an inclusive government that would oversee the next phase in the transition towards democracy in Egypt.

Elections within the next 12 months, inevitable after the military intervention, should preferably be about the creation of a government of national unity and not about gaining power for one of the contesting sides of the divide.  That government should be mandated to engage Egyptian society in an inclusive national dialogue about the future democratic dispensation and its institutional architecture.  Trust can only grow through dialogue, and when a culture of accommodation and reconciliation emerges, the foundations for stability are laid at which economic revival can take off.  Unfortunately, there exists no short-cut to democracy and durable economic development.  It requires a comprehensive and transparently crafted and genuinely managed inclusive transition process until such time that sufficient consensus has been reached about the rules of democratic decision-making and the safe-guards of the rights of Egyptian citizens.

While the EU is using its diplomatic acumen in an effort to bridge the political divide, this should be complemented, together with its international partners, by a coherent support package of its various governmental and non-governmental resources to facilitate a comprehensive transition programme with a focus on dialogue and reconciliation at the various levels of society and regions of Egypt, next to providing economic and trade support for alleviating the dire situation of the impoverished population.

Roel von Meijenfeldt, July 17th 2013