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Tolerance before democracy, says ex-British official

By-EG | 17 October 2009

The price of democracy is much of our tolerance, which 'comes first'. This was the main concept of a lecture delivered by Lord David Owen, a former British foreign secretary in Cairo this week.

Lord Owen, who held the post of UK's foreign secretary from 1977 to 1979 under former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan, lectured at a two-day workshop organised by Heikal Foundation for Arab Journalism.The workshop, titled: "Journalism across Frontiers", aimed at 'exposing young Egyptian journalists to world leading politicians' as Egypt's most prominent journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal put it. After resigning from the Labour Party in 1981, Lord Owen co-founded the Social Democratic Party, which he led from 1983 to 1987.Owen, who is also a psychiatrist, wrote many books including “Balkan Odyssey”, “Time to Declare”, his powerful autobiography; “Seven Ages”, a poetry anthology; “The Hubris Syndrome” and “In Sickness and in Power”. ."Democracy is how the people feel. It comes out from their culture," Lord Owen said, adding that he believed Westminster to be 'the finest'."I believe the presidential system is better than the parliamentary one… I'm not telling you what the best system is," he said, referring to the US system of government."The American system is based on the separation of powers (legislative and executive), while the British system fuses powers," he explained."[But] there should be a limitation. I argue for an eight-year period in office," he noted. A parliamentary republic or, a parliamentary constitutional republic, is type of a state, which operates under a parliamentary system of government. Parliamentary systems are characterised by no clear-cut separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. In addition to the UK, parliamentary system exists in Germany, India and Belgium.In the presidential system, a president acts like a prime minister in the parliamentary system, but he or she is elected for a fixed term in office.Argentina, South Korea and Brazil have followed the footsteps of the US, adopting the presidential system.But in any system MPs should be independent, argued Lord Owen."[So that] the power of scrutiny would be exercised. Parliament should have teeth. I hear Egyptian Parliament has teeth…But they aren't very sharp," he said.Commenting on an Egyptian law allocating a quota of seats for women in the People's Assembly (the Lower House of the Egyptian Parliament), Lord Owen said: "It is reasonable to have positive discrimination favouring women."Only nine women were elected to the North African country's Parliament in the 2005 legislative election.By allocating 64 seats for women starting from next year, the total number of seats in the People's Assembly will increase from 454 to 518, including ten appointed by the head of the state.As for the question of the banned Muslim Brothers, Owen said their "charters and beliefs are wholly against the present structure of society"."If you won't try to subvert the country, you are accepted," he said, referring to the Muslim Brothers' winning of 88 seats in the People's Assembly in 2005. Members of the banned fundamentalist group pose as independents in the Parliament.Commenting the democratic experience in the most populous Arab country, he stressed that evolution takes time. "Evolutionary changes may take as long as 20 years." 
 
 

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