The Arab revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia are still under way. Their political outcome is still far from totally clear, but two things are certain: Europeans should learn how to deal with the new conservative forces in power in these countries, and European public institutions and NGOs alike have a crucial stake in helping civil society organizations play their full role in the transition to democracy.

The revolutions in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis were initially led by the people—mostly young people voicing the citizens’ demands for more liberties, more social justice, more accountability, and a greater say in public affairs. Ensuing elections, however, ended with a very strong showing for conservative forces with a clearly religious background.

Debates on new constitutions, education, the role of women, and media freedom have shown tendencies towards a different agenda from the ones initially heard on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, or Tahrir Square in Cairo. The underlying agenda of the conservative forces, which are now solidly in the lead, raises serious questions for European Union governments, and for the West more generally. 

To put it differently, are the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement interested in “EU values” or “shared values with the West”, or are they intent on defending and implementing an altogether different set of values? Will they listen to civil society or be pushed by the radical inclinations of the Salafi groups? The jury is still out and debates in the respective parliaments are still under way. Bridges of knowledge and confidence should quickly be built with the new political actors in the Arab world, so that the decision-making echelons on both sides understand each other more clearly. 

The political debate in the north of Africa—including Algeria and Morocco—is largely linked to the place and role of civil society. Its organization, its strength, its determination, and indeed the extent to which political powers will be ready to listen to it, will be crucial in delineating the future shape of these societies. Will the leaders of the countries concerned erase the past mistakes of centralized political power, predatory economic policies, and marginalization of civil society which characterized so many of these countries in the recent past?

An additional element for the near future is the economy. While the revolutions have created massive expectations in terms of job creation and income levels, the choices are immensely difficult and the economic future of countries like Egypt and Tunisia is definitely linked to a strong relationship with the European Union. The new regimes in the region will not have much room for maneuver. Economically-speaking, they are bound to maintain their deep trade and investment links with Europe.

On governance issues however, there is a wide margin of interpretation, as we do not yet know which direction Islamist governments intend to move in, and current conservative trends do not always point toward EU-compatible choices. This is where civil society—as well as the degree of support it will receive from the EU—enters the equation.

The launching of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) on November 12—initially an initiative of MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff—with MEP Elmar Brok as chairman of the board constitutes a very welcome step. The EED will start in early 2013 with an initial endowment of €11 million, €6 million of which will come from the European Commission and €5 million from Poland. In its press release, the Commission stated that the EED will “aim to help actors of change and emerging players who face obstacles in access to EU funding (…), offer a rapid and flexible funding mechanism for beneficiaries who are unsupported or insufficiently so, in particular for legal or administrative reasons” and provide these beneficiaries with funding for “conferences, seminars, publications, networking events, training courses and other activities”. If this is the case, it will constitute a new ray of hope in the EU’s neighborhood, where civil society actors such as journalists, bloggers, non-registered NGOs, and political movements have so far been operating under difficult conditions. Not all civil society organizations have always been well-served by existing EU funding mechanisms, which are often blind to NGOs that are “too small”, “not well versed in English”, or “too far from the capital city”.

If there is one interim lesson to draw from the Arab revolutions, it is that civil society has a huge potential to foster change toward more open, pluralist, and accountable forms of governance. This opportunity should not be missed, however “cumbersome” support to civil society organizations might appear to some in the European bureaucracy.

Extending a helping hand is in part a matter for the European Union, whether this is done through the EED, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), or specific country programs. But it is also a field of action for EU member states and their civil society organizations. Several EU countries are engaged in such forms of cooperation, which constitute a crucial channel for sharing their rich experience in political transitions. Contrary to country programs, which are subject to governmental approval in the recipient countries, the EED and the EIDHR are autonomous. This is of immense value for the civil society organizations concerned.

EU support should not be limited to funding but should take on board the fundamental new reality that these countries finally have a public opinion. True to its values, the EU should therefore associate civil society in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries as a legitimate interlocutor in the implementation mechanisms of its policy instruments.

A recent visit to Poland under the aegis of the Bertelsmann Foundation showed that the country of Solidarnosc has a lot to offer to Arab—and other—countries in democratic transition.

The European Solidarity Centre now under construction in Gdańsk will soon offer training. The recently launched Polish-Tunisian Institute for Democracy and Development in Tunis will share expertise. The trainees from Tunisia I met at Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza will take home good media practices, just as the Tunisian delegation which visited the Institute for National Remembrance in early October had a chance to learn how Poland coped with its pre-democratic past. The Warsaw Dialogue for Democracy, to be held December 14-15, will allow for more sharing of precious experiences. Similarly, the Foundation for International Solidarity, chaired by former Minister Krzysztof Stanowski, will be able to transfer Polish know-how on political transition to other countries, especially in the Arab world.  

Overall, Europe has a vital interest in fostering dialogue and democracy in Arab countries in transition. Policies and funding have been around in substantive ways since the instauration of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in November 1995. Today, in light of the Arab revolutions and learning from past insufficiencies, the European Union and its member states’ governments and civil society organizations need to quickly adjust to the new realities in the region. The turmoil generated by the Arab revolutions is far from over. Governments and civil society activists will continue to argue, agree, and disagree for quite a while. Europeans should display both understanding for the complexities involved and modesty vis-à-vis the momentous transitions initiated by a few civil society activists. More importantly, they should offer them fast, strong, and visible support and involvement.