In an attempt to break the stalemate of European foreign policy, many European commentators have shown a tendency to over-emphasise the adaptive and resilient powers of the MENA autocracies. Others portrayed these regimes as a “necessary evil” with which European officials had to maintain stable relations. It is clear that the fallen regimes – and some of the remaining ones – had a special ability to delude their Northern allies. However, doing justice to both parties means acknowledging the EU’s share of responsibility. Europe’s inclination to ‘overlook’ the MENA’s rampant human rights violations was, in fact, a choice. The main features of authoritarian rule were always there: elite dynamics hijacking the fate of national politics and the economy, tangled webs of friendships and loyalties within the regime’s inner circles, and state institutions stripped of all value or influence. Groups and individuals within the autocracies in question laboured to report these crimes but Europe failed to listen.
European self-assessment is only the first step. The expressed repentance and the shown “humility” are expected to bring about a shift in the way European policy-makers think about the region. Devising new policies towards the MENA region is a key factor in judging the lessons the EU has learnt from the Arab Spring.
The evaluation of European policies towards the southern Mediterranean countries revealed a general consensus on the need for a policy shift to address past shortcomings. Whether at the economic or political levels, there is much to be done.
Fully aware of the major role economic stability can play in determining the success or the failure of democratic transitions, the EU has put in place a set of financial assistance mechanisms. Various European institutions have pledged to provide the Arab Spring countries with funds to support economic growth. Other forms of European financial assistance include partial debt-relief, loans, emergency relief aid, and some small enterprise funds. Though these incentives are well-intentioned, their effectiveness in the long term remains very limited. The financial assistance approach, a salient feature of the pre-uprising era, proved largely ineffective in the long run; in fact, it tends to perpetuate of the ‘old’ state of affairs. The challenge, then, is to create fair and responsible agreements rather than burden these fledgling democracies with additional debts. Trade agreements are widely seen as the most viable alternative to achieve these goals.
"Today, more than ever, European politicians are called on to engage in a concerted effort to abandon not only autocratic rulers, but also the very assumptions on which European dealings with them have rested"
The will and determination of the Arab masses have brought countries closer to the fulfilment of the democratic principle. Therefore, it is high time for the Euro-Mediterranean partners to engage in economic partnerships that are capable of ensuring shared prosperity and economic security for all. A study by Uri Dadush and Michele Dunne suggested that the best way of supporting democratic aspirations of the southern Mediterranean countries is through “enhanced trade agreements that not only promote market access, but even more importantly maximize competitiveness-enhancing and job-promoting reforms in the Arab countries.”
Apart from reformed economic relationships, the basic doctrine underpinning European policy-making in relation to the Arab world also needs to be overhauled. Today, more than ever, European politicians are called on to engage in a concerted effort to abandon not only autocratic rulers, but also the very assumptions on which European dealings with them have rested. Indeed, the stereotypical bases of European foreign policy vis-à-vis the region have inflicted serious damage on the region. The post-Arab Spring era will test European “pragmatism”. Since European promotion of a ready-made democracy in the Arab world has not succeeded, experts have urged the EU to adopt the role of “facilitator of democracy” rather than “promoter of democratization.” In fact, it makes absolute sense that a “home-grown” democracy arising from the identity and aspirations of the Arab masses is more genuine and sustainable than the alternative.
In the aftermath of Arab uprisings, Euro-Mediterranean relations are bound to face numerous challenges. Central to these challenges is the risk that Europe’s longstanding alliance with autocrats might make it hard to adapt to regime change. The French response to the first free and democratic elections in independent Tunisia is a case in point. On October 27, 2011, official results proclaimed the victory of the moderate Islamist an-Nahdha Party. France was quick to voice its concerns. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy stated that his country will “be vigilant” about the respect of democratic values and human rights. Alain Juppé adopted a similar stance announcing that “this [an-Nahda victory] will not change the relationship between France and Tunisia but France will remain vigilant”. Interestingly enough, the same Sarkozy administration that had just a few months earlier offered its expertise to help the fallen regime suppress Tunisian dissidents announced itself as the guardian of human rights in the Islamist-led Tunisia. Juppé insisted that democratic principles and gender equality present a “red line” that the elected leaders should not cross. These statements provoked strong reactions among Tunisian bloggers and social media users who saw in the French diplomat’s assertions a form of impudent interference and an “assault on the Arab revolutions in general.”
With Islamists now in power, the need for cross-cultural communication cannot be overemphasised. Communication between the EU and its traditionally-feared threat – political Islam – is no easy endeavour. It has a lingering history of being a one-way process; with the submissive South complacently accepting dictates from the powerful North. The region’s changing conditions are an opportunity – for both Islamists and European officials – to reduce the “difficulty” of this process. Fostering the conditions of dialogue between the EU and the new governments and between the EU and civil society actors in the Arab Spring countries would definitely be helpful. In this regard, a rising European voice of wisdom, Joel Peters, insists that “the European Union needs to be open to all voices from the region, especially to those that do not share Europe’s priorities and concerns and which present a different concept of democracy and the role of religion in the public sphere.”
"Bestowing exaggerated praise on the Arab countries where torture, human rights abuses, and corruption still run rife can only be viewed as a perpetuation of the repented institutional security policy"
The Arab Spring has allowed Arab citizens to voice their real concerns. The EU’s assertion of its unequivocal commitment to respect human rights and democratic principles, irrespective of the choices of the Arab electorate, are integral to the rapprochement between the two blocs. As Lorezo Fioramonti has indicated in the edited book The European Union and the Arab Spring, a people-centred approach to Euro-Arab cooperation “holds the potential to reaffirm the EU’s credibility in international affairs as a genuine defender of human rights and democracy.” In a similar move, Arab protestors – in the midst of their brave dissent – reminded Western powers on several occasions that it’s the people, rather than autocrats who have the power to protect Western interests.
Even in the countries still awaiting their spring, the new spirit of European foreign policy should be strongly felt. Bestowing exaggerated praise on the Arab countries where torture, human rights abuses, and corruption still run rife can only be viewed as a perpetuation of the repented institutional security policy. For instance, the European attitude towards the 2011 constitutional amendments in Morocco attested to the continuity of the “dictator-friendly” formula in European diplomacy. In fact, at the time when thousands of Moroccans – led by the February 20 Movement – rallied against the undemocratic pattern of the constitutional changes, the EU welcomed the ‘new’ constitution and commended “the peaceful and democratic spirit surrounding the vote.” In a joint statement, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Stefan Füle regarded the ‘reforms’ as “important commitments to enhancing democracy and respect for human rights; strengthening separation of powers notably by increasing the role of parliament and the independence of the judiciary; advancing regionalisation and enhancing gender equality.”
Interestingly, European officials chose to overlook the Moroccan opposition’s remarks on the ‘reforms’. The fact that the committee in charge of this task was appointed solely by the King and that the suggested changes did by no means challenge the absolute powers of the Moroccan monarch did not seem to keep the EU from celebrating the “democratic spirit” of the process.
The post-referendum discussions point to the need of adjusting both European policy and discourse vis-à-vis the countries still awaiting their democratic spring. Indeed, these countries present the EU with a unique opportunity to put its rhetorical repentance about the autocratic ‘past’ and commitment towards a democratic future into practice.
"The EU’s equivocal stance vis-à-vis the military ousting of the Egypt’s first democratically and freely elected president – while millions of Egyptians from all walks of life continue to protest the coup – can only widen the gap between the EU’s democratic rhetoric and its practice"
In parallel fashion, the European response to the military coup in Egypt fails to reflect any deep change in the EU’s foreign policy towards the MENA region. In the Arab collective memory, it has been a scene that is highly reminiscent of a similar case several decades ago when Europe ignored its democratic principles to overturn elections in Algeria ensuing an unwelcomed win of Islamists. The EU’s equivocal stance vis-à-vis the military ousting of the Egypt’s first democratically and freely elected president – while millions of Egyptians from all walks of life continue to protest the coup – can only widen the gap between the EU’s democratic rhetoric and its practice. The Arab Spring is clearly a watershed period in modern Arab history and the European response to Egypt’s military coup will be important in shaping Arab perceptions of EU support for democracy in the region.
One might add that devising political and economic policies tailored to the MENA region’s specific needs and characteristics would be a major step on the path of forging solid relations. The overarching framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy, which deals with eastern and southern neighbours on equal footing, stops short from allowing a deeper collaboration with the countries of the southern Mediterranean.
Arab populations hoped the Arab Spring would fulfil the region’s aspirations for a new era. Today’s Arab youth are determined to pursue the mission of democratisation, political integrity, and human rights. The EU, for its part, would be wise to mitigate the effects of its past practices by trying to overcome its culturally induced fears. Political Islam can by no means be approached as a single bloc. It ranges from moderate thought to a more radical mind-set in groups like the Salafis and Jihadists. The American intellectual Marc Lynch has rightly pointed out that political Islam “takes many forms, some deeply incompatible with others.” As a result, European policy-makers are invited to actively engage with Islamists. The rise of Islamists to power in the countries of the Arab Spring makes the need for communication and tolerance even more pressing. Indeed, to bridge the divide between political Islam and Europe is as crucial as closing the gap between the EU’s rhetoric and practice.
The Arab Spring did not merely depose regimes and establish new ones. It has also called into question a whole paradigm of Western political thought. Fortunately, the spectacular events in the MENA region proved that Samuel Huntington’s concept of “Arab exceptionalism” rested on a flimsy foundation. We can only hope that future developments in Euro-Arab relations will continue to run counter to the “clash of civilisations” thesis.