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The EU and the Arab Spring

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:31

Henry ClementBy Clement M. Henry, Chair, Political Science Department, American University in Cairo

Too often the EU has appeared to its southern Mediterranean neighbours to be more concerned about boat people invading its islands and beaches than with their human rights or general welfare, not to mention their political aspirations. The Arab “Spring” caught the world by surprise and testified to the inadequacies of EU (and US) democracy promotion. The first reaction of the French foreign minister to the failures of the French-trained Tunisian security forces was to propose technical assistance to beef them up and keep President Ben Ali in power. Boat loads of Tunisian refugees reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa were as unwelcome to the Italians as the attempted flight to France of the corrupt Tunisian ruling family that had to be diverted to Saudi Arabia. Indeed the French and Italians quarreled over the destinations of the refugees, and there were few other EU takers for the tens of thousands of Africans who fled north from Tunisia, then Libya.

The EU struggled, however, to make amends for having tolerated southern dictators too long. Commission Vice President Catherine Ashton visited Tunisia within a month of Ben Ali’s fall from power to express the EU’s “wholehearted” support for “the Tunisian people’s aspirations for freedom, democracy and dignity.”[1] EU declarations on March 8, 2011, followed by more detailed proposals in May, fleshed out a balanced response to the Arab uprisings. Security and “Mobility” partnerships remained core EU priorities but they were wrapped inside various scholarship and academic exchange programs and further covered by commitments to promote political transitions and economic development.

The Arab Spring jolted the EU into more serious efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Political conditionality was strengthened: “Where governance has seriously deteriorated, the EU should reassess its budget support cooperation with the partner country.”[2] Conversely, “more for more” meant awarding Tunisia the lion’s share of fresh funds raised for the EU’s SPRING (Support for Partnerships, Reform and Inclusive Growth) program launched in September 2011. The EU doubled Tunisia’s European Neighborhood allocation and tripled the country’s total 2011 funding to EUR 240 million.

As the poster child of democratic transitions, Tunisia indeed received well deserved, disproportionate assistance, an incremental EUR 80 million (not including humanitarian assistance) for this country of 10 million inhabitants, compared to an extra EUR 2 million in support of voters’ participation in parliamentary and presidential elections for Egypt’s 83 million.  Although Egypt’s revolutionaries followed Tunisia’s lead and toppled President Hosni Mubarak in just 18 days, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), saved from a Mubarak succession, proceeded to trample on human rights while awkwardly supervising a tortuous transition that may well wind the country back to pre-1952 times.

Viewed from Cairo, the EU got its priorities right. Tunisians indeed conjured up a remarkable transition. Ben Ali’s prime minister appointed respected notables to lead various commissions, the most important of which became a de facto transitional assembly representing self-selected proponents of civil society. Ben Ali’s transitional successor, the incumbent president of the National Assembly, picked his former patron from the 1960s to become the new transitional prime minister and work with the ad hoc assembly. They devised an inclusive electoral law based on proportional representation and selected an independent electoral commission to oversee free and fair elections to a Constituent Assembly. The Nahda (Islamist) Party won over 40 per cent of the seats in October 2012, as did its Muslim Brotherhood counterpart in Egypt two months later. The Nahda, however, established an alliance with two other parties, and its leaders, who had also suffered for opposing Ben Ali, were empowered to serve respectively as president of the Republic and of the Constituent Assembly. In Egypt, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to monopolize the selection of a committee to draft the constitution rather than working with other opposition parties to limit SCAF’s unbridled authority.

Tunisia closely cooperated with the EU during the transition period and welcomed EU support for civil society as well as elections and humanitarian aid for the refugees fleeing Libya after outbreak of the uprising and civil war. Egypt, on the other hand, turned down all EU offers not only to negotiate a mobility partnership but also to strengthen civil society and protect human rights. An initial EUR 20 million EU package for civil society promised immediately after Mubarak’s downfall could not be administered.[3] The SCAF’s civilian government pounced on a number of NGOs for not conforming to various regulations designed to block many of their activities, including the transfer of funds to local organizations. Playing to nationalist audiences, SCAF sponsored trials in February 2012 of 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO leaders, including the son of the American Secretary of Transport. Brussels’ clever or fortuitous response to these show trials was to draft a questionnaire, dated March 8, 2012, asking for “the views of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and other stakeholders on the future policy of the EU with regard to support to CSOs in partner countries in the field of development cooperation.”[4] Initiatives supporting democracy, human rights, or the rule of law in Egypt are on hold until civil society, not only SCAF, benefits from Tunisia’s uprising.


[1] HRVP Ashton visits Tunisia and wider Middle East, EU Press Release, 14 February 2011: http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/11/151

[3] “The EU’s response to the “Arab Spring,” Press Release, December 16, 2011: http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/11/918