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German Chancellor Angela Merkel sits besides British Prime Minister David Cameron in Munich, Feb. 5, 2011. Photo by AP
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European powers Germany and Britain urged Egypt on Saturday to change leaders rapidly but take its time holding elections, saying traditions of tolerance and fairness had to be built to make democracy work.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and European Council President Herman van Rompuy reiterated demands for a rapid "transition" -- a phrase that has become a diplomatic codeword for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of military-backed autocracy.

But they said caution would be needed in the aftermath.

"I don't believe that we solve the world's problems by flicking a switch and holding an election ... Egypt is a classic case in point," Cameron told a security conference in Munich.

"I think a very quick election at the start of a process of democratization would be wrong," Merkel told the same meeting, citing her own experiences as an East German pro-democracy activist at the time of the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall.

"If there is an election first, new structures (of political dialogue and decision-making) don't have a chance to develop."

Mubarak, who has pledged to step down in September, said on Thursday he believed Egypt would descend into chaos if he were to give in to almost two weeks of demands by an unprecedented popular revolt that he quit immediately.

He has fashioned himself as the crucial rampart against Islamist militancy in Egypt and the indispensable player in maintaining a peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979.

WORRY ABOUT ISLAMIST RISE

Political analysts say European caution about free elections in Egypt will be seen by many in the Middle East as evidence of Western anxiety about the possibility that Islamists could come to power in the Arab world's most populous country.

Critics of Western diplomacy in the region says this anxiety reflects a double standard, namely that the West compromises on its democratic ideals when the outcome would be unfavorable.

Egypt's largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, is tolerated by the authorities despite being officially banned.

The Brotherhood says that, if given the freedom to choose, most of Egypt's 80 million population would choose a form of Islamic law, although it is publicly committed to political pluralism.

Cameron said that a transition to a new leadership and political reform in Egypt is essential, because delay would produce an unstable country that the West would not welcome.

But he said building democracy in Britain itself had taken hundreds of years of inculcating traditions of tolerance, showing the growth of democracy was a process, not an event.

"Yes, the transition has to start now to demonstrate to people inside (Egypt) that their aspirations are being understood. But if we think it's about the act of holding an election, we are wrong," he said.

"I think there's a naivety that existed among politicians in the past that somehow if you introduce democracy like that you solve a country's problems," said Cameron. "I don't believe that for one second. But what I do believe is that we should build a partnership for an open society."