Egypt, Tunisia could learn from Chile

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.

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.

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.

Create a 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.

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.

Contact Oppenheimer, the Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.