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Europe and the Arab Spring

Submitted by on 16 Sep 2011 – 11:03

Professor Gilbert AchcarProfessor Gilbert Achar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies

Europe’s initial approach to the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa was a disastrous one. When protests started developing in Tunisia after the 17th of December 2010, the date when a young man set himself on fire in the small city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, the French government offered Ben Ali’s dictatorship its help in organising the repression. This was in conformity with a long standing Western tradition of collusion assorted with complacency vis-à-vis Arab despotic regimes, a tradition based on obvious economic and political reasons. Later on, when the protest movement gathered momentum in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt and other countries while managing to topple the Tunisian and Egyptian autocrats, Europe joined the United States in stating support for democracy and political freedom. It did so, however, while insisting heavily on the need for an ‘orderly transition’ – a phrase that became omnipresent in Western declarations.

Consider this sequence of occurrences of the same phrase in statements on Egypt: 29 January, statement by President Barack Obama, and joint statement by Prime Minister David Cameron, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel; 30 January, statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; joint statement (phone exchange) by Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama; 31 January, statement by the Council of the European Union; 1st February, statement by  President Barack Obama; and so on and so forth. The meaning of this ubiquitous ‘orderly transition’ became plainly clear when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seized the reins of power in Cairo announcing former President Mubarak’s resignation. European governments joined Washington in praising this move and expressing their confidence in the military. They continue to do so to this day despite the many assaults on basic civil rights that the Egyptian military junta commits every day, not least of them the trial of thousands of civil protesters by military courts. Only very timid worries have been expressed in that regard under the pressure of human rights organisations.

No one should believe that the victory of the Libyan insurrection with NATO’s help is changing the West’s image in Arab public opinion: it is not. Instead, it is NATO’s intervention that is tarnishing the impact of the Libyan revolution, an impact that would have been much greater had the revolution triumphed without NATO’s support. Western governments are exerting strong pressure on the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) in order to accommodate the barons and repressive institutions of Gaddafi’s regime. We are told that this is in, order to avoid a repetition in Libya of what happened in Iraq – as if, had Washington arranged in Iraq for what some were calling ‘Saddamism without Saddam’, the scheme would have worked well. Imagine the reaction in a country where the army and repressive apparatuses were dominated by a layer of people belonging in their majority to a sectarian and regional minority for 35 years of ruthless dictatorship. Likewise, NATO’s insistence on a TNC deal with the remnants of Gaddafi’s regime – accommodating Gaddafi’s former buddies who stayed with him till the end of his 42-year demented rule – could only be a source of high tensions and popular discontent, if it could be implemented.

These are very short-sighted attitudes on the part of European governments. They are dictated by egoistic European concerns about the ‘stability’ of this economically vital region, and belong to the same old policy of privileging this so-called stability at the cost of real democracy. It is a self-defeating policy, as the situation that is thus perpetuated is highly unstable. Instead of producing protracted political disorders tending towards stabilisation in the long run, as was the course of all political transformations in European history, it leads inevitably to periodic explosions, getting bigger and bigger over time. It also leads to the accumulation of hatred towards the West, seen as sponsoring despotic regimes in order to preserve its economic interests. And the belief that such governments as those Europe has been supporting can stem the flow of migrants to European borders is no less short-sighted. In preventing social protest repressively, despotic and semi-despotic governments delay the social and economic reforms without which more and more people are tempted to flee their countries in addition to those who seek a freer air to breathe.

Most European officials who worry about the poor image of their countries in the Arab world attribute it to Western policy on Israel and the Palestinian issue. There is certainly a lot of truth in that, as the West is held responsible for the acts of an Israeli government to which it concedes major privileges, instead of exerting real pressure on it in order to modify its behaviour in a way that is conducive to peace – an instance where pressure would truly be useful for everyone concerned. True, but Europe’s attitude towards the existing repressive order in Arab countries is at least as important. For Europe to regain the confidence of the Arab peoples, it needs only to be genuinely faithful to the democratic principles it proclaims.