Unprecedented Change

The changes brought about by the Arab revolutions of 2011–2012 were unprecedented in scope and nature. Initially, Egyptian and Tunisian citizens revolted against sclerotic governments and corrupt elites. When elections were held, liberal forces appeared fragmented and lacked popular credibility, while the far better organized Islamist forces—the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia—became the dominant political forces. Political confusion ensued and fundamental changes have been slow in coming.

In the process, revolutions ended up worsening the already dire economic prospects of Egypt and Tunisia. Tourists shy away, foreign direct investors are more reluctant, some national investors tend to export capital, and scarcity shows on the foreign exchange sector. This happens at the very time that revolutions created immense expectations for the younger and poorer segments of society. Many hopes have been smashed.

Is the EU Policy Shift Big Enough?

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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As soon as March 2011, the EU altered its policy toward the region, essentially adding more resources and focusing them more on governance and civil society than before the revolutions. This was a remarkably quick turnaround by EU policymaking standards. However, such a policy fix has been confronted with three major difficulties.

First, there is an issue of EU “legitimacy” with Islamist political forces. After decades of siding with the previous regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, the Islamist forces are asking the EU and the West a simple question: “Where were you when we were tortured?” In this context, good advice on issues dear to the EU, such as governance or relations with the civil society, may remain unheeded.

Second, the issue of the “value system” remains divisive. By definition, the EU’s policies, or the United States’ for that matter, are based on a well-known set of fundamental values: respect for the rule of law, a strong role for civil society in addition to representative democracy, women’s rights, and independence of the media, to name but a few. So far, judging by daily events in Cairo or Tunis, it is not entirely clear that the EU and the Islamist parties in power are on the same page.

The third difficulty is the coincidence between the Arab revolutions and the debut of the EU’s new foreign policy architecture, which both started in January 2011. Confronting such a deep change in the Arab region’s fundamentals was obviously made more difficult at a time when a new institution—the European External Action Service—was created and new procedures were put in place.

The Arab transition might well take a decade or more, and the politics, societies, and values that it eventually produces may differ greatly from the ones in place today. However, on current trends, the Arab revolutions appear to be ushering in far deeper changes than many Europeans and Americans may have initially thought. Will these transformations play in favor of EU strategic interests and will these values be compatible with the EU’s?

A Democratic Paradox

One of the most striking paradoxes of the Arab revolutions so far, at least in Egypt and Tunisia, is that by ousting decade-long dictators they might in the short-term have brought to power regimes with authoritarian leanings as strong as their predecessors.

There is no less police brutality or torture in Egypt today than under the Mubarak regime. Nor are NGOs and civil society activists facing any less hassle and persecution than before. Major questions remain unanswered: Is the new law on NGOs going to be any more liberal for civil society activists? Probably not. Will the regime banish cronyism or corruption? Not certain yet.

The case of Tunisia might be slightly more familiar because Ennahda has recently shown more flexibility and more understanding toward dialogue and compromise with other political forces. It has also agreed to transfer sovereign ministries such as foreign affairs, justice and interior to nonpolitical figures. In so doing, Tunisia is probably “easier to read” for the EU and the United States.

Overall, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia brought about one major change: citizens lined up in silence to cast their ballot in free elections. This was a first after decades of dictatorships and rigged elections, and a momentous achievement that came from popular revolts. It also means that there is no going back. Citizens won their rights and will defend them.

Yet, one essential component of the current political battles in these two countries is the balance between “ballot box democracy” and “civil society democracy.” For parties that have been suppressed, with leaders exiled or routinely imprisoned and tortured, the ballot box is a fundamental vehicle of the transition process. At this stage of their revolutions, it is probably difficult for them to conceive of any other means of establishing democracy, especially as they often consider civil society organizations as “creations of the West.” However, in societies as diverse as Egypt and Tunisia currently are—and this will be valid tomorrow for Syria or Libya—it is essential that dialogue take place between the various components of society, that such dialogue is heeded by the dominant political forces, and that in the end consensus emerges. Peace at home and respect from abroad come at this price. The EU should press this point.

An Economic Paradox

The political difficulties in Egypt and Tunisia have a strong economic dimension. While the political focus is on elections and power control, the economic situation in the two countries is very dire. As much as their leaders may resent past political attitudes from the EU toward the previous dictatorships, they will have to come to terms with a simple, inescapable reality: exports, imports, direct investment, tourism, and technology are overwhelmingly tied to European countries. There are very few, if any, alternatives to this situation, and this, in turn, has implications for the democratic processes at hand.

In other countries like Jordan or Morocco, where evolutions, not revolutions, are at work, the same economic realities dominate the economic scene. In addition, these two countries may suffer from a “negative image effect” because of the situation in Egypt and Tunisia, which may impact negatively on tourism or foreign direct investment, for example.

For the EU and the West, a Need to Clarify Objectives and Methods

Arab revolutions have a simple meaning for the EU and other Western countries: they are first and foremost a lesson in modesty. Nobody saw them coming, nobody can claim paternity, and nobody can be sure they fully grasp their meaning at this stage. The political meaning of these revolutions is also fairly simple: they were driven from within, not inspired from abroad. This is why there is so much legitimacy in the results of these elections, however surprising they may have been to Western observers.

This is also why the “more for more” approach adopted by the EU in early 2011 (more democratic reforms will trigger more EU financing), however well-founded it may seem in Brussels, has a limited meaning for the citizens of Egypt and Tunisia. They won their revolutions on their own terms and they want their rights to be confirmed through a purely domestic political process.

The bodies administering European financial support to Arab countries in transition may be discouraged and confused by the lack of convergence with the newly dominant political forces, or by the weakness of the forces they were more familiar with. But this is the new political reality in the region.

This situation calls for two priorities.

Understanding these revolutions is still the first priority. Engaging the new political actors—whatever the misunderstandings, mutual fears, and obvious divergences—must be an essential ingredient of EU policies. Where drastic differences on political choices emerge, they should be discussed openly and with mutual respect.

A second priority will be to readjust the European toolbox in order to give strong support to civil society. Past experience under previous regimes has shown that supporting NGOs is always difficult to implement, but the courage and spirit of initiative of Arab citizens cannot be ignored anymore. Tunisia and, to a large extent, Egypt have shown that civil society forces are still struggling toward open societies.

Islamists Parties Too Need to Clarify Their Stance

As revolutions unfold in Arab countries, European scholars are increasingly wondering whether the West and Islamist parties share the same—or at least a mutually compatible—values system. Is there agreement on issues such as the freedom of expression, education, the role of civil society, coexistence of different lifestyles, and women’s rights? Today, Europe and the West have legitimate reasons to doubt this.

For decades, giving a role to civil society has not been in Egypt’s, Tunisia’s, Libya’s, or indeed Syria’s political tradition. Under the previous regimes, civil society organizations were systematically suspected of being “Islamist” and were therefore suppressed. So far, it is not clear that the new regimes will want to give a bigger voice to civilian actors than before. Islamists parties will have to come to terms with another major political fact: citizens in their countries have acquired their freedom of speech, and they paid a high price for it. They are not going to be easily “robbed” of their revolutions.

Finally, there is another hard reality. All Arab countries in the Mediterranean have a deep dependency on Europe for economic and security matters. In the face of economic hardships, terrorism threats, irregular migration flows, and drug trafficking, they have virtually no alternative to strong cooperation with European countries. It may not be politically easy to admit for some Islamist parties in power at this stage of their transition processes, but the sooner they come to terms with these realities, the better.

This piece was originally published, in a slightly different form, in a Globsec Policy Brief by the Central European Policy Institute.