Europe and the Arab Spring
What Arab Spring countries really need is financial support. But European pledges have not been met with action, writes El-Sayed Amin Shalabi
Much of the attention of European officialdom and academia has been focussed on how to handle the uprisings of the Arab Spring, especially since the rise of the profile of political Islam in legislative and parliamentary elections. The most recent manifestation of this concern is to be found in a conference sponsored by the Free University of Berlin in cooperation with the German Council for Foreign Relations. Held from 8-10 June, the conference addressed numerous issues, the most salient of which were the following questions:
- What do the countries of the Arab Spring that are currently in a transitional phase expect from Europe?
- What are the limitations and restrictions on the European role at the economic, political and security levels?
- How will the Arab Spring affect the future of the Middle East peace process?
As a participant in this conference, I offered an Egyptian perspective, a summary of which I will present here.
Due to the economic deterioration that followed the uprisings, economic assistance and support is what countries such as Egypt and Tunisia most need from Europe at this stage. Economic straits are the root of political instability and social tension, to which testify the sudden spurt of labour strikes and sit-ins to demand pay increases, better working conditions and job opportunities. The revolution had given the opportunity to broad segments of society to voice long-standing demands that the government has been unable to meet due to lack of resources.
So far, the European response to this urgent need has been largely nominal. Although the EU and G8 pledged $31 billion in aid to Egypt and Tunisia during their meeting in Deauville, France, in May 2011, they have yet to deliver on this pledge, forcing the Egyptian prime minister to complain publicly. When we asked European officials what the cause of the delay was, they said that the EU was waiting for Egypt to specify the projects that it wanted the EU to support. On the other hand, the European Construction and Development Bank recently announced that it had set up a $1 billion fund for investment in Egypt and Tunisia and that it expects the fund to increase to $52 billion in the coming five years.
Certainly there are many ways that Europe can help the countries of the Arab Spring out of their current financial and economic difficulties. Job creation, encouraging investment and promoting tourism are just a few of the major areas that require immediate attention. It can also help develop our educational systems and support civil society and its organisations, although here it must tread delicately, in view of the recent NGO crisis in Egypt, and avoid any suspicion of attempting to intervene in domestic affairs. Europe could also lend its experience and know-how in order to help us build a sound democracy and a cohesive party system, albeit again assistance should be made in a transparent manner and through legitimate channels.
The European perception of the restrictions or limitations on its contributions has been primarily shaped by the rise of Islamists and is best encapsulated in the expressions "More gets more" and "Let's wait and see." While such attitudes may appear rational, to the degree that they are premised on the extent to which Islamists in power deliver on pledges to respect the rules and principles of democracy, they do not respond to the very pressing needs of Arab societies at this stage. On the other hand, the current economic and financial crisis in Europe places certain limitations on the economic support it can lend our countries. This said; that crisis did not prevent the EU from pouring billions of Euros into Spain and Greece to help them out of their current straits.
Other factors may affect the European role in the countries of the Arab Spring. The US has been reorienting itself strategically from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, and there is a possibility that Europe may follow suit. Nevertheless, Europe continues to depend economically on the Middle East and North Africa, and especially on the Gulf, which makes it very sensitive to political tensions and transformations in this region.
Naturally, the Middle East peace process and its fate garnered a good share of attention in the conference. The process has been stalled for some time as the result of ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and the systematic Judaisation of Jerusalem, daily acts of Israeli aggression against Palestinians, and Israeli intransigence in all negotiations at the international level and with the Palestinians. Such policies, which obstruct any settlement based on the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, have caused many, including a number of Palestinian officials, to begin contemplating discarding the two-state solution and rehabilitating the call for a single democratic state.
As grim as the picture may appear, there are some glimmers of light. There is some hope that the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah may succeed. This together with the inclusion of the moderate Kadima Party in the Netanyahu government coalition may give some impetus to the peace process in view of Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz's support for the two-state solution. Perhaps developments in the US will help. Growing segments of American Jewish opinion, as represented by such organisations as J Street, are lobbying Washington to pursue a more balanced policy towards Israel and to push for the two-state solution. In addition, some believe that if Obama wins a second term in office he will be freed of some of the encumbrances he faced in his first term and therefore be able to put his full energies behind a peace drive and to exert some serious pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction and expansion, and to accept the conditions of a durable peace.
In addition to such central questions, the conference also addressed other issues related to the Arab Spring. It discussed, for example, the future of European cooperation with the Gulf in this transitional phase, the new role of the Arab League, the impact of the Arab Spring on EU neighbourhood and Euromed policies. Finally, an Israeli scholar offered an Israeli perspective on the Arab Spring. All such issues and the ideas that were exchanged during the conference merit an article in their own right.
The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.