Chilean perspectives on Egypt

The mass demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square reminded Chileans of their own country's struggle for democracy.

A few weeks after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt last year, two Chileans landed in Cairo.  One had been imprisoned and exiled during the seventeen-year rule of General Augusto Pinochet; the other had helped organize a successful campaign against the dictator’s attempt to prolong his rule in a one-man presidential plebiscite. The scenes from Tahrir Square had brought back vivid memories of their own country’s recent history and its transition from dictatorship to democratic government.

Sergio Bitar, a founding leader of Chile’s Party for Democracy, and Genaro Arriagada, a Christian Democrat, had held cabinet posts in post-Pinochet governments. The Chileans had made the trip at the behest of the National Democratic Institute (http://www.ndi.org/), one of 17 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) under investigation by Egyptian authorities.  The National Democratic Institute had supported voter registration and sent election observers to Chile in 1988, when voters were asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to extend Pinochet’s regime for another eight years. Pinochet’s loss at the polls opened the way for free elections, and Chile’s successful democratic transition prompted the NDI to ask Bitar and Arriagada to share their experiences and ideas with Egyptian activists.

“Mubarak’s fall from power was very sudden, and Pinochet’s was gradual,” Bitar said in a telephone interview. He noted that Chile’s politicians had been labouring behind the scenes for approximately eight years before Pinochet left the presidency.  Another difference was the role of the military: the Chilean army was solidly behind Pinochet, while the Egyptian army proved to be more neutral. The issues of greatest interest to his Egyptian hosts were constitutional reform and corruption, and Bitar said he emphasized the importance of building political coalitions as well as maintaining a dialogue between civilians and the military.  He is optimistic about the country’s future democratic prospects, but cautioned that democratic transitions take at least five years.

The NDI also hosted a videoconference with Egyptian women activists, with the participation of Maria Eugenia Hirmas, a Chilean sociologist who served in the cabinet of former president Michelle Bachelet.  Hirmas gave a presentation on how Chilean women confronted their country’s dictatorship and how they sought to influence post-Pinochet governments.  The Egyptian women were interested in the Chileans’ strategies for joining male-dominated political groups, concerned that discussions on constitutional reform and other issues were not taking women’s concerns into account.

The Chileans returned to Egypt during last year’s elections as part of a multinational team of observers, with Hirmas and Bitar visiting Alexandria during the vote for a new parliament.  Hirmas said many of the women were casting ballots for the first time in their lives, and doing so enthusiastically, including many from impoverished rural backgrounds who reluctantly removed their veils in order to identify themselves to male election officials and be allowed to vote.

“I was moved by the hope people had that their situation was going to change, that they had something to say and that this time it would be considered,” she said.

An article by Sergio Bitar on parallels between Mubarak and Pinochet in Spain’s El Pais newspaper: http://elpais.com/diario/2011/05/05/opinion/1304546411_850215.html.

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