It's time for Brussels to re-think its post-Arab Spring strategy

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Hafez Ghanem
Hafez Ghanem

Vice President of the World Bank for Africa

Consider a typical 25 year-old unemployed university graduate, let’s say in Cairo or Tunis. Let’s also say she’s a young woman who has heard about the “European Neighborhood Policy” and about the “Union for the Mediterranean”, even if she is confused about how the two fit together. Even before the ‘Arab Spring’, she was sure that the Europeans wanted to help, but that Arab autocrats were diverting their aid money. In late 2010 and early 2011 she marched either in Bourghiba Avenue or Tahrir Square demanding “bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity.”

And when the autocrats fell, she got very excited about the European Union’s new “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity (PDSP)”. But now we are in 2014, and she is still unemployed and not much freer than before. She has neither heard nor seen any tangible results from the PDSP. When she applied for a Schengen visa to visit her friend who lives just across the Mediterranean, it was denied. If she were to read a newspaper article about some new European initiative for the Southern Mediterranean, she would probably start singing one of Dalida’s best-known songs: “paroles, paroles, paroles…..paroles et encore des paroles.”

Europe is interested in promoting democracy, human rights and economic development in the southern Mediterranean to protect its own security and to control migration. It so happens that in this case the European Union’s interests and its values coincide. Respect for human rights and democracy in the southern Mediterranean would help reduce the risks of terrorism. If young Arabs can find freedom and economic opportunity at home, they won’t risk their lives trying to migrate illegally to Europe.

In the 1990s, the EU played a crucial role in the transition of eastern Europe. This was possible because those countries were offered full membership. East Europeans across the political spectrum agreed to work together and carry out difficult reforms in order to join the EU. This obviously isn’t possible in the case of the Arab countries of the Mediterranean.

If young Arabs can find freedom and economic opportunity at home, they won’t risk their lives trying to migrate illegally to Europe.

An alternative could be to offer the southern Mediterranean countries an integration scheme similar to the “European Economic Area”, on condition that they start taking steps toward adopting the European acquis communautaire. This would imply gradually establishing deep and comprehensive economic relations that would eventually lead to the full adoption of the acquis and full participation in the European internal market. But it’s an approach that would also face political and economic hurdles and probably isn’t feasible for the time being.

Absent an ambitious integration scheme, Europe’s best option is probably to implement the PDSP. It presents an excellent platform for co-operation and its pillars, like democratic reform, inclusive economic development and more open trade, are still as relevant in 2014 as back in 2011, and will continue to be so. The challenge for Europe is to better translate the PDSP into concrete actions on the ground.

Supporting Arab democratic transformation is a long-term commitment. Arab countries have weak democratic institutions and no experience or culture of democracy. The role of political Islam (and the extreme polarisation in Arab societies between Islamists and secularists) render the democratic transition that much more difficult.

There is no consensus on the key question of whether Islamism can be consistent with democracy. The main Islamist parties insist that they have fully embraced democracy and democratic values, but the secularists don’t trust them and remain convinced that political Islam is inconsistent with democracy. They argue that Islamists’ insistence on the application of Sharia laws implies that there is an authority that stands above the electorate, which cannot be the case in any democracy.

Europe must remain directly engaged with ordinary citizens and their representatives, and must be determined to maintain relations with civil society and the private sector.

The Arab transition to democracy will take years, with many twists and turns along the way. Recent events in Egypt have shown how messy the struggle between secularists and Islamists could get. Europe will have to adopt a patient long-term view, and avoid adjusting its strategies every time there is a change, not to say a setback, in any of the southern Mediterranean countries.

This means that Europe may sometimes have to work with southern Mediterranean governments that have only a weak commitment to democracy. But an important lesson from the past is that Europe must remain directly engaged with ordinary citizens and their representatives, and must be determined to maintain relations with civil society and the private sector. The days of only working with governments are over.

Europe is unlikely to greatly influence the struggle between secularists and Islamists. Yet it could help its southern neighbors to resolve this issue and move to full democracy by supporting inclusive economic growth and institution-building. Restoring economic growth and making it more inclusive is important. On a recent visit to Tunis, I asked a young taxi driver how things were going. He was bitter, saying: “I regret that I participated in the revolution, we were better off under Ben Ali”. His income has fallen because of shrinking tourism and the economic downturn, and polls show that many Tunisians share his sentiments. The Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project estimates that 83% of Tunisians are unhappy with economic conditions, posing risks for the transition, as 59% of Tunisians believe that a strong economy is more important than democracy.

More small and medium enterprises would help promote growth and inclusiveness. In Egypt more than 70% of first-time job seekers end up working in informal small businesses, where productivity is low and wages are less than $4 a day. The European Union could help improve productivity and wages through greater financing and technical assistance, and by promoting links between smaller Arab enterprises and European markets.

Europe could help reduce rural poverty and regional inequality by supporting agricultural projects that target family-owned small holdings and by further opening up its markets to their produce.

Supporting small business would also help promote democracy. When the private sector consists of a few large firms, they tend to build special links to government. These “connected companies” prefer to support autocratic regimes that provide them with protection, access to financing and government and public infrastructure contracts. Thus a system of autocracy and crony capitalism grows and perpetuates itself, but it can be countered by supporting larger numbers of small business owners capable of exerting pressure to institute legal and institutional reforms to level the playing field and break the link between large capitalists and autocratic governments. They would also call for democratic reforms so as to use electoral politics to push for policy reforms that support small businesses.

The EU could also support inclusive growth in the southern Mediterranean by helping deal with the problems of rural poverty and regional inequality. About 57% of Egyptians, 42% of Moroccans and 32% of Tunisians live in rural areas. They are mostly poor, and provide a good breeding ground for extremism. Rural poverty rates in Egypt and Morocco are three times higher than in these countries’ urban communities. In Tunisia, extreme poverty in the central west region is 14 times higher than in Tunis, making it no surprise that the Arab spring started in provincial Sidi Bouzid.

Nearly all of these poor people depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, and in the Southern Mediterranean that mostly means small family farms. About 98% of farms in Egypt, 70% of farms in Morocco and 54% of farms in Tunisia are on plots of less than five hectares. Europe could help reduce rural poverty and regional inequality by supporting agricultural projects that target family-owned small holdings and by further opening up its markets to their produce.

Inclusive institutions are important for democracy as well as for economic growth and social justice. The failure of southern Mediterranean governments to act decisively on social justice issues can partly be explained by the fact that the lower middle class and the poor who would benefit from such an agenda have little or no voice in economic decision-making. Inclusive economic institutions that would give voice to ordinary citizens in policy-making, and empower them to hold government officials accountable, would increase the probability that a social justice agenda is adopted and then implemented.

The effort that another strategy would demand is better spent implementing the EU’s existing one.

Public investment in the southern Mediterranean is biased towards relatively better-off regions and groups, reflecting the non-inclusive nature of planning and economic decision-making. The system excludes major stakeholders in the private sector and in civil society, labour and farmers’ organisations. The EU could help strengthen economic policymaking and make it more democratic through technical co-operation and the sharing of experience.

Civil society organisations have an important advocacy role to play for small businesses, especially the informal sector and other marginalised groups, to ensure that governments take their concerns into account when formulating policies. Farmers’ organisations and cooperatives are a special type of civil society groupings that do much to strengthen governance of the agriculture sector, particularly in developing and supporting small farms. Problems caused by the large number of very small family farms can be tackled through the development of strong producer organisations so that their voice is heard in policy discussions, and they gain greater access to technology, inputs and markets.

The EU has long experience of working with civil society and farmers’ organisations, and has the means to support them financially as well as through technical co-operation. By doing so, it would contribute to inclusive development as well as democratisation. But the experience of some foreign organisations in Egypt has already shown that this support needs to be done carefully to avoid accusations of meddling in domestic politics.

The EU could also do more to encourage South-South co-operation. For example, Mediterranean countries could benefit from Brazil’s experience of fighting hunger. When its former President Lula da Silva was in power, he created the 59-member National Food and Nutritional Security Council (Consea), which is a good example of an inclusive economic institution. It had 59 members to group government and civil society representatives, as a tool to improve co-operation and eliminate hunger.

Europe could contribute much to democracy and economic development in the Mediterranean region, and also enhance its security and limit illegal migration, and it can do so without coming up with an elaborate new strategy. The effort that another strategy would demand is better spent implementing the EU’s existing one.

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