As upheaval continues across the Middle East, the path towards democracy is far from clear. In the midst of the chaos, two Chilean politicans who held places in the cabinet during the end of Pinochet’s military dictatorship have been drafted in to provide their expertise in Egypt.

On account of the roles they played during the country’s transition to democracy, two Chilean politicians recently flew to Cairo to offer their expertise, as Egyptian leaders negotiate their new-found freedom.

Since the peaceful end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the United States has been has been holding up the Chilean example model of peaceful transition from military rule to democracy. Addressing Latin America during a visit to Santiago last week, President Obama highlighted the Chilean experience, saying “At a time when people around the world are reaching for their freedoms, Chile shows that it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy – and to do so peacefully.”

As Egypt tries to find its feet following the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship, two-thirds of its population have never lived through a democratic election. face a potentially difficult future.

Sergio Bitar and Genaro Arriagada both held cabinet positions during the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s 16 years of military dictatorship.

Bitar, who helped form Chile’s Party for Democracy (PPD), was held in detention centres during the first years of Pinochet’s regime and then exiled, for nine years, returning to the country five years before the end of Pinochet’s regime. His colleage Arriagada is a prominent member of Chile’s Christian Democratic Party (PDC), a political scientist, diplomat and lawyer.

“We spoke on a number of issues: how to deal with the military, how to form coalitions, how to select candidates for the presidency,” explained Bitar, in an interview with the Santiago Times.

While the West generally welcomed an opening for democracy in Egypt, Bitar argues that the worries expressed by some leaders about who could fill the void left by Mubarak – with special concern about the potential role of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood – are in many cases unwarranted.

“You are not facing a situation in Egypt that could get out of hand,” he said. “Some of [Egypt’s] organizations are weak at the moment, but they can come together, and coalesce. The Brotherhood are not, in my opinion, the radical group that some perceive they are.”

A further issue discussed by the politicians was how to cope with the history of human rights abuses of the Mubarack dictatorship and the legacy it could leave within Egyptian civil society. On this front, Bitar said, the team advised Egypt of the need to “distinguish between the institution and the individuals who committed the crimes, to build a trust between the new regime and the people who suffered under the previous one.”

The two politicians visited to Egypt under a program of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a non-profit organisation based in the United States which works on promoting democratic practises around the world. The organisation, formed in 1983, was also present in Chile during Chile’s 1988 “No” plebiscite that brought Pinochet’s military rule to an end.

The trip, according to Bitar, was deemed a success on all sides and the White House has already requested the politician’s presence in Bahrain.


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