Events in Tunisia and Egypt, and unrest across the Arab world from Yemen to Sudan, have shown that Western stability policies for the southern and eastern shore of the Mediterranean were built on sand. For Europe, they are also a severe indictment of European “neighborhood” policies toward the Arab world.
For about half a century, the European Union has tried to export socio-economic and political development to this adjacent region. The results have been, to put it mildly, exceedingly modest—particularly when compared with the impressive transformations the EU achieved in Central and Eastern Europe and even in the Balkans. On the other shore of Europe’s mare nostrum, however, the EU’s association agreements with individual Mediterranean countries (including Egypt) since the late 1950s, the Global Mediterranean Policy (1972 – 1991), the Renewed Mediterranean Policy (1991-1995), the Barcelona Declaration of 1995 establishing the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, and then the European Neighbourhood Policy since 2003 were all meant to advance peace, stability, prosperity, and human rights, good governance, the rule of law, and democracy. The model for this co-operation was the CSCE/OSCE process in Europe, with its three major baskets of political and security issues, economics, and socio-cultural aspects, including human rights. Yet while the CSCE process played an important role in transforming Europe, the EU’s efforts in its southern neighborhood fell flat, despite considerable expense of effort and resources, both human and financial.
How could Europe get this so wrong ? A key reason is that the EU (like the United States) ultimately valued stability higher than peace, prosperity, and respect for human rights and dignity. By supporting regimes that appeared to guarantee political stability, Europe sought to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the Arab world. It sought to enhance its own security from Islamist terrorism by ensuring the security of the rulers not only from terrorist attacks, but also from their own restless populations. The EU also hoped to promote prosperity through political stability—that of the region itself, but also its own, through opening the region’s markets and ensuring security of oil supplies (a particularly important area of cooperation with Egypt).
But Europe did not recognize that this stability was precarious, that the advances toward peace and prosperity secured through cooperation with the established regimes were incomplete, distorted, and often empty. It relied on working with regimes that were bent on controlling the vibrant forces of civil society and political dissent, often brutally suffocating them in the process. Thus, the EU’s Country Strategy Paper 2007-2013 for Egypt, while identifying much of what was wrong with Egypt, recommended addressing all those problems by working with the Egyptian authorities—including on improving the human rights record, on overcoming corruption, as well as on making progress with democratic reforms, rule of law and good governance. The ambivalence of this approach is illustrated by sentences such as this : “EU assistance will be targeted at strengthening the culture of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the capacity and effectiveness of all competent institutions, including the security apparatus and the police.”
If Europe wants to make a difference regarding the festering problems of a rapidly growing, well-educated, and sophisticated generation of young people who are deprived of their future by their rulers, Europe will have to engage with, and contribute to, civil society activities and forces in the Arab world directly—not mediated through the authorities. Above all else, this will require a better understanding of what is happening in these countries on the ground, and not only in the palaces. (The cables published by WikiLeaks suggest that U.S. diplomacy may have been rather better at this than the Europeans—though perhaps we need Europe’s cables leaked, too, to judge this fairly !)
Most importantly, Europe will have to take leave of a few deeply rooted but profoundly wrong assumptions about the Middle East—that the Arab world is not ready for democracy ; that Israeli-Arab peace can be imposed on the Palestinians and the Arab peoples ; and that political Islam is inherently unfit to participate in the political process, and therefore must be suppressed and excised, rather than integrated.