Political Turmoil in the Middle East: There are Lessons for Europe

By Hanns W. Maull
Political Turmoil in the Middle East: There are Lessons for Europe


What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt, and the wider unrest across the whole Arab world from Yemen to Sudan, shows that optimistic assumptions of Western policies about political stability on the southern and eastern shore of the Mediterranean rested on foundations of sand. For Europe, it is also a severe indictment of European „neighborhood“ policies towards the Arab world.   For about half a century, the European Union has tried to export socio-economic and political development in this adjacent region. The results have been, to put it mildly, exceedingly modest – particular when held against the impressive transformations the EU did achieve in Central Eastern Europe and even in the Balkans (although that particular task has not yet been completed fully, as we have just been reminded with regard to Kosovo, there certainly has been significant progress). On the other shore of Europe’s mare nostrum, however, the Association agreements within individual Mediterranean countries (including Egypt) since the late 1950s, the Global Mediterranean Policy (1972 – 1991), the Renewed Mediterranean Policy (1991-1995), the Barcelona Declaration of 1995 establishing the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, and then the European Neighborhood Policy since 2003 were all meant to „civilise“ the region - that is, to advance peace, stability, prosperity, and human rights, good governance, the rule of law and democracy. The model for this co-operation was the CSCE/OSCE process in Europe, with its three major baskets of political and security issues, economics, and socio-cultural aspects including human rights. Yet while the CSCE process played an important role in transforming Europe, the EU’S efforts in its southern neighborhood fell flat, despite considerable expense of effort and resources, both human and financial.   

How could Europe get this so wrong? To find answers, it is instructive to study the EU’s Country Strategy Paper 2007-2013 for Egypt.  One important reason is that the EU, like the United States, ultimately valued stability higher than peace, prosperity and respect for human rights and dignity. By supporting regimes which appeared to guarantee political stability, Europe sought to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the Arab world. It sought to enhance its own security from (Islamist) terrorism by ensuring the security of the rulers not only from terrorist attacks, but also from their own restless populations. The EU also sought to promote prosperity through political stability – that of the region itself, but also its own, through opening the region’s markets and ensuring security of oil supplies (a particularly important area of cooperation with Egypt). 

But Europe did not recognize that this stability was precarious, that the advances towards peace and prosperity secured through cooperation with the established regimes were incomplete, distorted and often empty - or if it did, it did nothing about it. Rather, it relied on working with those regimes, which were bent on controlling the vibrant forces of civil society and political dissent, often brutally suffocating them in the process. Thus, the EU Strategy Paper, while identifying much of what was wrong with Egypt, comprehensively suggests addressing all those problems by working with the Egyptian authorities – on improving the human rights record, on overcoming corruption, on making progress with democratic reforms, rule of law and good governance, and so on. One can easily imagine the ambivalence of such cooperation when one reads sentences such as this one: „EU assistance will be targeted at strengthening the culture of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the capacity and effectiveness (!) of all competent institutions, including the security apparatus and the police“ (p. 22).  

One can understand, if not appreciate, how it could come to this. But Europe needs to do a lot better in the future, if it seriously wants to make a difference to the festering problems of a rapidly growing, well educated and sophisticated generation of young people who are deprived of their future by their rulers. To do better, Europe will have to seriously engage with, and contribute to, civil society activities and forces in the Arab world – directly, not mediated through respective authorities. This will above all else require expertise of what happens in those countries - on the ground, not only in the palaces (the WikiLeaks actually suggest that US diplomacy may have been rather better at getting such expertise than the Europeans – though perhaps we need those European secret cables leaked, too, to judge this fairly!). And Europe will also have to take leave from a few deeply rooted, but also profoundly misleading assumptions about the Middle East: that the Arab world is not ready for democracy; that Israeli-Arab peace can be imposed on the Palestinians and the Arab peoples; and that political Islam is inherently unfit to participate in the political process, and therefore must be suppressed and excised, rather than integrated.  


Hans Maull presently is a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, on leave as Professor of Foreign Policy and International Relations at the University of Trier, Germany.  This opinion piece will also be carried  by http://www.deutsche-aussenpolitik.de in its  weekly digest on German foreign policy.