Nick Clegg: Democracy takes time, but a betrayal of Egypt's uprising would puncture the hopes of millions

The harsh and outdated Emergency Law must be lifted. There can be no stalling or backsliding

Two months ago I met a group of Egyptian activists in London. Young, professional and politically savvy. Men and women proud to have been part of a real revolution, but anxious about the trials of transition. I am seeing them again today, but this time in Cairo. I want to know how far they believe Egypt has come because, from the outside, the picture looks worrying.

Millions of Egyptians are growing restive as uncertainty surrounds the election timetable. They fear their victory is slipping away. Conspiracy theories abound. There are real fears that the shift to a new, freer, fairer Egypt now hangs in the balance. That is not a situation to be ignored. Order and peaceful reform depend on the Egyptian people believing change is coming. The loss of tourist revenues and investment is a major problem for a country in desperate need of cash. And the international markets are watching closely. It will be catastrophic if they decide the country is in reverse.

It isn't just Egypt's future at stake. The Arab Spring has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for peace, prosperity and democracy on Europe's southern shores. But uncertainty in Egypt puts that prospect at risk. In different ways, in Yemen, in Syria, and across North Africa, the Near East and the Gulf, citizens are demanding greater freedoms. Failure in the region's biggest state would puncture their spirit, emboldening regimes who still believe they can sidestep reform. Continued instability would create fertile ground for extremists. And it would make it even harder for Israel and the Palestinians to find lasting peace.

There would be direct consequences for the UK, too. Last year we were responsible for a staggering 70 per cent of all foreign investment in Egypt – more than any other country. That means jobs here at home. And it is a market which has huge potential for growth, delivering further opportunities for UK businesses. But our businesses can only operate in a certain environment, governed by the rule of law. So the stakes are high. Of course, democracy takes time. But the window for change won't stay open forever. Egyptian citizens must have confidence in a clear road map to the democratic vision they have articulated. That means a credible plan for approval of Egypt's new constitution, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections – all of which should come sooner rather than later. The inquiry into recent violence is welcome, but the best way to defuse sectarian tensions is through clear human rights guarantees. The harsh and outdated Emergency Law must also be lifted, and basic security restored to the streets.

For our part, the UK will remain a firm friend to Egypt as it makes progress. The Coalition is making every effort to work closely with the interim government. We will keep pushing at the door, offering support and expertise, and making the expectations of the international community clear. And today I am meeting Egypt's leaders to press that message in person. We will continue to stand with all those who advocate democracy. Reform is an exhausting process. It can be easy to lose heart, and international solidarity provides a huge boost to morale. In practical terms, we're helping with the nuts and bolts. For example, through programmes to mentor female candidates for the new parliament; advice networks for fledgling political parties; and through efforts, led by organisations including the BBC, to ensure fair election coverage by the state media. Taken together, these steps help lay the ground for fair and plural politics. Finally, we're helping Egypt to rebuild its economy. Years of corruption and cronyism have enriched a small elite. The informal economy has swelled. But, in the long-term it is no substitute for a properly regulated economy. Workers need proper protections, and the state needs tax receipts too.

So the international community has made clear that, as Egypt makes the journey to democracy, we are ready to provide the financial assistance needed for sustainable, inclusive growth. Up to $38bn is available to the region through the international financial institutions, and the UK will play its part. We won't turn our back on Egypt. We recognise that revolutions are only ever the beginning. But there can be no stalling and no backsliding. There is too much at stake, and there is no time to waste.