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Democracy doesn't on its own mean effective government

Bringing about stability in the Middle East is not somebody else's job, it's ours. It will be a difficult and expensive struggle, and it is essential the people of the region know the west is on their side

Stone-throwing protesters standing on a tank in Cairo.

Stone-throwing protesters standing on a tank in Cairo. Photograph: Ahmed Ali/AP

The events that led to the Egyptian army's removal of President Mohamed Morsi confronted the military with a simple choice: intervention or chaos. Seventeen million people on the street is not the same as an election. But it is an awesome manifestation of people power. The equivalent turnout in Britain would be around 13 million people. Just think about it for a moment. The army wouldn't intervene here, it is true. But the government wouldn't survive either.

The Muslim Brotherhood was unable to shift from being an opposition movement to being a government. Of course governments govern badly or well or averagely. But this is different. The economy is tanking. Ordinary law and order has virtually disappeared. Services aren't functioning properly. Individual ministers did their best. A few weeks back, I met the tourism minister, who I thought was excellent, with a sensible plan to revive Egypt's tourist sector. A few days ago, he resigned, when the president took the mind-boggling step of appointing as governor of Luxor (a key tourist destination) someone who was affiliated to the group responsible for Egypt's worst-ever terror attack, in Luxor, which killed more than 60 tourists in 1997.

Now the army is faced with the delicate and arduous task of steering the country back on to a path towards elections and a rapid return to democratic rule. We must hope that they can do this without further bloodshed. Meanwhile, however, someone is going to have to run things and govern. This will mean taking some very tough, even unpopular decisions. It is not going to be easy.

What is happening in Egypt is the latest example of the interplay, visible the world over, between democracy, protest and government efficacy. Democracy is a way of deciding the decision-makers, but it is not a substitute for making the decision. I remember an early conversation with some young Egyptians shortly after President Mubarak's downfall. They believed that, with democracy, problems would be solved. When I probed on the right economic policy for Egypt, they simply said that it would all be fine because now they had democracy; and, in so far as they had an economic idea, it was well to the old left of anything that had a chance of working.

I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government doesn't on its own mean effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge. When governments don't deliver, people protest. They don't want to wait for an election. In fact, as Turkey and Brazil show, they can protest even when, on any objective basis, countries have made huge progress. But as countries move from low to middle income status, the people's expectations rise. They want quality services, better housing, good infrastructure, especially transport. And they will fight against any sense that a clique at the top is barring their way.

This is a sort of free democratic spirit that operates outside the convention of democracy that elections decide the government. It is enormously fuelled by social media, itself a revolutionary phenomenon. And it moves very fast in precipitating crisis. It is not always consistent or rational. A protest is not a policy, or a placard a programme for government. But if governments don't have a clear argument with which to rebut the protest, they're in trouble.

In Egypt, the government's problems were compounded by resentment at the ideology and intolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood. People felt that the Brotherhood was steadily imposing its own doctrines on everyday life. Across the Middle East, for the first time, and this is a positive development, there is open debate about the role of religion in politics. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood's superior organisation, there is probably a majority for an intrinsically secular approach to government in the region.

Society can be deeply imbued with religious observance, but people are starting to realise that democracy only works as a pluralistic concept where faiths are respected and where religion has a voice, not a veto. For Egypt, a nation with an immense and varied civilisation, around 8 million Christians and a young population who need to be connected to the world, there isn't really a future as an Islamic state that aspires to be part of a regional caliphate.

So what should the west do? Egypt is the latest reminder that the region is in turmoil and won't leave us alone, however we may wish it would. Disengagement is not an option, because the status quo is not an option. Any decision not to act is itself a decision of vast consequence. At its crudest, we can't afford for Egypt to collapse. So we should engage with the new de facto power and help the new government make the changes necessary, especially on the economy, so they can deliver for the people. In that way, we can also help shape a path back to the ballot box that is designed by and for Egyptians.

As for Syria, when we contemplate the worst that can happen, we realise that it is unacceptable. We could end up with effective partition of the country, with a poor Sunni state to the east, shut out from the sea and the nation's wealth, and run by extremists. Lebanon would be totally destabilised; Iraq further destabilised; Jordan put under even greater pressure (which only the courage and leadership of the king is presently managing on behalf of all of us). And what was left for Assad to govern would be dependent on Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation, and Iran.

As for Iran, maybe the new president wishes to try to bring his country to agreement with the world on Iran's nuclear weapons ambition. Maybe he doesn't. And in any event the power is still with the ayatollah. We can't afford a nuclear-armed Iran. And we haven't even mentioned the challenges of Libya or Yemen or, further afield, Pakistan, or the plague of extremism now coursing through the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa or parts of central Asia.

Our interests demand that we are engaged. We have to take decisions for the long term because short term there are no simple solutions. What John Kerry is doing now with such dedication and drive on the Israeli/Palestinian issue is exemplary. If it matters, act on it, however hard. We are in a long haul transition in the Middle East. It is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. We feel it should be someone else's job to help sort it out. But it is our job. This struggle matters to us. The good news is that there are millions of modern and open-minded people out there. They need to know we are on their side, their allies, prepared to pay the price to be there with them.

• This article will be opened for comments on Sunday morning

Tony Blair is the Special Envoy for the Middle East Quartet

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