Democracy and security in the Middle East – How are Germany and the EU responding to the upheavals in the Arab world?

Conference panel with Dr. Annegret Bendiek, Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, Barbara Unmüßig, Heba Morayef, Michael Reiffenstuel. Photo: Stephan Röhl, Source: Flickr, Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0   

December 18, 2012
Torsten Arndt

The Arab Spring, which was welcomed euphorically two years ago, has now given way to a sobering political reality that has already been dubbed the “Arab Autumn” by the most pessimistic observers. The post-revolution elections in Tunisia and Egypt have brought Islamist parties to power – groups that hardly meet Western democratic ideals, despite their moderate political positions. The bloody conflict between the Assad regime and the armed rebels in Syria has reached a stalemate that has proven difficult for outsiders to assess, and the international community has so far only responded with diplomatic helplessness.

Europe also does not yet seem to know quite how to address the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East, an impression that the 13th  Annual Foreign Policy Conference of the Heinrich Böll Foundation was not able to completely dispel. Numerous policymakers and experts from Germany and elsewhere, including diplomatic missions from 26 countries, accepted the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s invitation to Berlin on the 8th and 9th of November for a lively discussion on ways of interacting with political Islam, the geopolitical context of the Arab Spring, and possible strategies for action by the EU. 

As expected, the discussion resulted in more questions than answers. Nevertheless, a clear impression remained that the historical and political dimensions of the Arab upheavals will fundamentally change Europe’s relationship to the region. In the view of many participants, Europe's influence on the development must not be overestimated. In the comments of guests from countries of the Arab Spring, it repeatedly became apparent that future relations will not be defined by the amount of financial aid provided, but by respectful interaction between equals. If Europe wants to contribute to the stabilization and democratization in the region, it will have to come to terms with these new circumstances, be it in the context of the EU’s Neighborhood Policy, the implementation of human rights, or economic projects.

Political Islam vs. citizens’ rights?

The role played by Islam in the uprisings against authoritarian regimes from Tunisia to Syria is the subject of controversy among experts today. The fact remains that the first free elections in the region led to overwhelming victories by moderate Islamist parties in many cases. During the conference, many pointed to Turkey as a potential model for a successful, and above all democratic, modernization of Islamic countries. However, the two Turkish guests were opposed to the idealization of the Turkish model – according to Soli Özel, Europeans in particular gladly use it to mask their own insecurities in this issue. Özel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, had hardly anything positive to say about his country’s role in international affairs. Especially with regard to the conflict in Syria, Turkey has suffered a massive loss in credibility due to numerous blunders. An obvious discrepancy exists between the declared objectives of the AKP government and Turkey’s capacity to enforce them. Binnaz Toprak, a member of the secular Turkish opposition party CHP, pointed to the internal political contradictions of Turkish democracy, which is marked by economic success and increasing authoritarianism. The Islamist governing party AKP is violating basic legal principles, suppressing critical media and systematically bringing the country’s judicial system and bureaucracy under its control. The lesson here for other Islamic countries is that economic success does not necessarily lead to more democracy, Toprak explained.

Rather than pursuing the Turkish model that she had rather thoroughly discredited, Toprak recommended that the countries of the Arab Spring focus consistently on the universal values ​​of liberal democracies. Political rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and equality before the law were also key demands of the demonstrations against the Arab regimes. Toprak emphasized that she would not endorse authoritarian secularism. While it is essential that Islamic parties continue to play a political role, democratic values ​​and the rule of law must not be considered negotiable out of misunderstood cultural relativism. Unfortunately, historical experience has shown that Islamic governments have repeatedly restricted personal freedoms, Toprak noted. With the emphasis on supposedly home-grown models of democracy in countries such as Egypt, she is concerned that this pattern could repeat itself in Arab Spring.

As expected, Toprak’s open criticism of Egypt’s course since the ouster of President Mubarak was contradicted by Abdul Mawgoud R. Dardery, member of the Egyptian parliament for the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Dardery, whose party is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, explained that his country wanted to choose its own path after the fall of the old regime. As an Islamic democracy, Egypt will be neither a theocracy, nor a secular system. The party does not strive to establish universal laws to regulate certain rights such as those pertaining to divorce, he said. Instead, religious communities are to be given the right to apply their own rules. Dardery attached great importance to the fact that this is an ongoing learning process in which citizens’ rights should always be taken into account.

This kindly-disposed assessment of Egypt’s current “special path” was not entirely shared by Hossam Bahgat. The director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in Cairo noted that the current constitutional debate has not been very transparent or inclusive so far. There were hardly any Christians and only seven women among the 100 members of the constituent body. Human rights barely feature on the political agenda, and 40% of the Egyptian population still rejects equality for women. While Bahgat sees sufficient reason for vigilance, he also noted that the Islamist-dominated parliament had not yet adopted any laws that restrict women's rights further. A little-noted new regulation pertaining to health insurance for domestic workers even favors women, he pointed out.

With Tunisia’s mixture of the two approaches to politically integrating Islam, Radwan Masmoudi sees his homeland as positioned between the more secular Turkey and the political Islam of Egypt. Masmoudi, the Director of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID) based in Tunis and Washington, explained that despite its Islamic roots, the ruling party Ennahda explicitly refrained from enshrining the concept of Sharia law in the new constitution in order to avoid controversial interpretations. In Masmoudi’s view, the future of political Islam will depend on such reform steps. In addition to political transformation, the Arab Spring opened the door for religious renewal. Until 400 years ago, Islam allowed the continuous adjustment of religious teachings to the social circumstances of life, a process that is known as “ijtihad”, resulting in flexible and regionally differentiated interpretations of the Koran. It is likely that a successful modernization of the Islamic world can only succeed if this practice were to be revived, Masmoudi explained.

Geopolitical consequences

The Arab Spring not only triggered internal political upheavals, but also dramatic regional consequences. The EU Special Representative for the Middle East peace process Andreas Reinicke noted that Syria, for example, was no longer an active regional player. By contrast, Turkey and Egypt have assumed more active diplomatic roles. Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also becoming more engaged in regional policy through bodies such as the increasingly important Gulf Cooperation Council. The relatively small state of Qatar has gained considerable influence in the Middle East and North Africa thanks to its active foreign policy, its Al-Jazeera news channel, and its generous, non-bureaucratic financial aid in the event of crises. The other side of the coin is that such aid frequently also goes to Islamist groups in the recipient countries, as Claire Beaugrand of the International Crisis Group in Brussels noted.

In contrast to these countries, Israel has remained a largely passive observer of the upheavals. Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, already noted in opening the conference that the Arab Spring had led to the “complete collapse” of Israel’s security architecture in the region. Retired Israeli General Danny Rothschild, Director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, underscored this assessment when he noted that the completely unclear future of the Arab Spring is prompting Israel to pursue its security interests with a very short-term perspective. It sees the collapse of the Egyptian or Syrian states as a real danger, as Israel would likely be facing well-armed Islamist extremists in such a case, Rothschild explained.

The fact that the Middle East conflict remains an obstacle for Israel’s closer interaction with the new governments was apparent during the conference, when guests from Libya and Egypt refused to join a discussion panel with an Israeli participant (the meeting took place a few days before the renewed escalation of the Gaza crisis). The often very lively discussion on the topic did not give the impression that the two sides have come any closer in key respects. All of the participants nevertheless agreed that time is growing tight for the two-state solution everyone favors. One side blamed Israeli settlement policy for this; others made Hamas responsible for the diplomatic impasse. Rothschild complained that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians currently have political leaders capable of enforcing existing compromise solutions. Israel could therefore soon be forced to unilaterally impose the two-state solution.

The Israeli representatives also pointed to the growing risk of an arms race in the Middle East. Oded Eran of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv warned of the increasingly professional arsenals of radical Islamist groups. The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya exacerbated this trend considerably, and Syria’s collapse would add a new quality to the danger due to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. Margret Johannsen of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg criticized Germany's role in this dangerous situation, and accused the federal government of contributing to the insecurity in the region with its arms exports. “Tanks often last longer than the regimes that deploy them,” Johannsen pointed out.

The conflict over the Iranian nuclear program, which has been the focus of international diplomacy for years, cannot be overlooked in this context. According to Eran, only bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran would have any prospect of success, while other participants such as Mohamed Kadry Said Abdelaal of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo reminded listeners of the Israeli nuclear weapons program, and argued for the inclusion of Israel in a regional agreement on nuclear disarmament. Many of the attending experts noted a narrow window for a diplomatic breakthrough following the re-election of U.S. President Obama and the upcoming Iranian presidential elections next year. Former ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, now chairman of the Munich Security Conference, hoped for an end to the “paralysis” of U.S. policy toward Iran following Obama's election victory. On the other hand, Tamara Cofman Wittes, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs for the U.S. State Department, reminded listeners of Iran’s obligations, as it has repeatedly given the impression of only playing for time in negotiations. 

Focus on Syria – will the international community fail?

The complexities and contradictions of the Arab Spring crystallize especially clearly in Syria, Soli Özel noted. In addition to the armed opposition’s battle with the Assad regime, the country has become a venue of regional and global power struggles. Wael Sawah was invited as a representative of the Syrian opposition, and he described the daily level of violence in forceful language and asked the West for swift assistance. Political pressure on the fragmented opposition groups would initially be required, but the threat of military assistance should also not be ruled out entirely. The conflict is not yet a “civil war”, but without international intervention one could break out soon, making a political solution impossible for decades to come, Sawah explained.  

Like many other experts at the conference, Wolfgang Ischinger was quite firm in his opposition to a possible military intervention in Syria by the international community. He could not make out any international desire for active armed support of the Syrian opposition, and military threats would therefore remain ineffective. Furthermore, a military intervention in Syria would have to be legitimized by international law, which hardly appears possible against the resistance of Russia and China in the UN Security Council. This also means that setting up security zones within Syria to protect civilians is not feasible, as their protection cannot be guaranteed without the option of military escalation.

Andreas Reinicke also had little hope for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria, given the deadlock in the Security Council.  It is virtually impossible for outsiders to realistically assess the balance of power within the fragmented Syrian opposition, and some opposition leaders claim to be fighting against both Assad and radical Islamists. The only realistic option would therefore be to work closely with Syria’s neighbors to prevent the conflict from spreading. The solution that Reinicke diplomatically described as a realistic policy approach was condemned by Özel as a “moral failure” of the international community. However, the only promising alternative that Özel could envisage was a “dirty” solution, such as a palace coup, in which Assad would be eliminated by those close to him (“Syria needs a Romania”).

Omid Nouripour, Security Policy Speaker of the Alliance 90/The Greens parliamentary group, admitted to being perplexed by these limited options. Even arms shipments to Syrian rebels were out of the question in his opinion: The spillover of the Libyan conflict into Mali was a compelling demonstration of the unintended consequences that can arise if such weapons fall into the wrong hands. The only course of action that remains is to support the numerous peaceful opposition groups inside Syria. Unfortunately, such groups hardly ever warrant a mention in the western media, Nouripour said. This point was confirmed by Petra Stienen, a specialist in Arabic studies and former diplomat, who accused the media of fostering a distorted public image of the conflict by focusing on reports of violence. For example, 790 peaceful demonstrations against the Assad regime took place on a single day, yet the press took no discernible notice of them. To assist Assad’s opponents even after a possible flight from Syria, Stienen and Nouripour believe that Europe should provide more support to Syria’s neighbors, and lift its own restrictions on the admission of refugees.  This would be a very tangible aid measure, in which countries such as Germany could lead by good example.

Europe between historical responsibility and paternalism

Many of the familiar alliances and comfortable certainties that shaped western relations with the Arab world for decades have been thrown into disarray and a completely uncertain future by the recent upheavals. Soli Özel, who opened his analysis by quoting a sobering article in The New York Review of Books (“Darkness Descends upon the Arab World”), accused the West – which had been taken completely by surprise by the rapid succession of falling regimes – of developing a kind of “amnesia” with regard to its own historical responsibility for the events. This is not just a matter of European support for authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Syria and Libya as part of its “stability policy”. The Arab Spring must be seen as the collapse of the post-Ottoman order in the Middle East established by Great Britain and France, and the old colonial order in North Africa, Özel explained. The resulting governmental crises were marked the uprising of sub-national groups, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Israel are the last four truly stable states in the region.

Özel observed that in this context, European discussions of the Arab Spring are often seen from the perspective of the Middle East as Eurocentric, paternalistic and condescending – a view shared by numerous other international conference participants. This also applies, for example, to the “nonsensical question” of whether Islam is compatible with democracy or capitalism. Özel believes that no religion is compatible with democracy per se, noting that in Islamic countries, such discussions could therefore only be fruitful with secular concepts. Apart from the issue of material aid, he called for the future dialog between Europe and the Middle East to be conducted in mutual respect and on an equal footing – a further aspect of future relations that was repeatedly underscored emphatically by other conference participants.

Is human rights policy possible with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Since the electoral victories of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in the region, Europe has been looking for a pragmatic policy of stability that does not completely dispense with the observance of human rights. Discussions during the conference described the thin line that the EU needs to follow in the future if it intends to represent both European interests and European values in its Middle East policy. Overly frank criticism of the new governments could be perceived as European paternalism and quickly lead to a renewed loss of esteem, Wolfgang Ischinger noted. Andreas Reinicke defended the former European cooperation with authoritarian regimes as a “realistic policy” – one that was certainly not perfect. The EU is now facing a similar dilemma in dealing with the opposition movements in Syria, for example, because the opponents of the current regime may also quickly turn out to be authoritarian and undemocratic. Despite these complex problems, Europe is nevertheless still held in high esteem in the Arab world – certainly in comparison to the United States. 

Heba Morayef, who investigated human rights violations in Egypt and Libya on behalf of Human Rights Watch, disagreed with Reinicke’s view, and asserted that after tolerating torture and oppression for years, Europe certainly does have a problem with legitimacy in the Arab world. To prevent the renewed systematic violation of human rights during the transformation, the EU needs to insist on clear minimum standards – such as a ban on torture – from the outset in its negotiations. Europe must respect the election victories of Islamist parties, and should not show one-sided support for secular or liberal parties, Morayef said. The new Islamist government in Egypt, for example, is certainly willing to engage in an honest human rights dialog with the EU.

The new European Neighborhood Policy – ambitious but ineffective?

For Sylke Tempel, Editor-in-Chief of Internationale Politik, and others, the frank criticism of the EU’s past Middle East policy raised the question of just how intensively the West could participate in actively shaping the Arab Spring. Europe will apparently need to address this question with great persistence, as many experts attending the conference consider the future role of the U.S. superpower to be far from certain. Tamara Cofman Wittes explained that international development assistance is “toxic” in U.S. domestic policy, making it an easy target for budget cuts. Most participants also deemed substantial financial aid from Europe to be unlikely. A “Marshall Plan”, as called for by Radwan Masmoudi, would only be conceivable with the involvement of other Arab countries, as proposed by Annegret Bendiek of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs: “There is no shortage of money in the region.”

Despite current fiscal austerity, the budget of the European Neighborhood Policy was topped up from €5.7 to €6.9 billion until 2013. In May 2011, the EU also introduced a new strategic element of cooperation: In future, support should be subject to progress in democratic reforms (“more for more”). This, said Michael Reiffenstuel, who is responsible for fundamental issues related to the transformation of the Arab world and the Maghreb in the German Foreign Office, is Europe’s response to the legitimate charge that it tacitly accepted human-rights violations in its cooperation with authoritarian governments. Europe must continue to pursue the new approach pragmatically, however, without “wagging fingers”, Reiffenstuel said.

Doubts were raised at the conference about the effectiveness of the new Neighborhood Policy, however. Bendiek noted that the Neighborhood Policy had not been sufficiently harmonized with other strategic objectives in its role as a part of the EU’s common foreign and security policy. Franziska Brantner, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA, also criticized that aid packages are subject to far too little coordination and are often awarded according to purely commercial principles. Many conference participants doubted the effectiveness of the “more for more” principle, and asked which democratic standards should be applied to the development of the region and how potential violations should be sanctioned. According to Masmoudi, the new conditionality of European aid could certainly promote reforms in stable regimes; the revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world called for swift and non-bureaucratic support, however. It is unfair to expect mature political and economic concepts from inexperienced new elites, Masmoudi added. Instead, Europe should do everything to stabilize the new governments, which are frequently faced with still-powerful elements of the old regime. Wolfgang Ischinger concurred and recalled the old adage, “He gives twice who gives quickly.”

Bendiek criticized the EU for trying to unite too many different countries in a single policy framework with its Neighborhood Policy. She pointed to the results of a 2008 study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, according to which the EU’s influence in the 16 partner countries of the Neighborhood Policy was only effective in cases in which economic or security-policy dependencies existed. “Energy-arrogant” states such as Algeria or Azerbaijan are largely independent in this respect, and not particularly willing to comply with European demands that they do not deem convenient. A gap could thus open between the aspirations and realities of European policy, possibly leading to yet another loss of credibility in the region. Bendiek recommended heeding the lessons of the transformation processes in Eastern Europe: Rather than insisting on unrealistic targets for political liberalization, European assistance should first focus on the promotion of a thorough economic liberalization of the Arab world.

Desertec as a pioneer

The ambitious Desertec project is a showcase of tangible, mutually beneficial economic cooperation between Europe and North Africa. Dii CEO Paul van Son presented the concept for generating renewable energy, which is designed to unite the energy markets of the Mediterranean region. A long-term success will require close cooperation of the company and EU countries with the governments of North Africa. The institutional and technological structures and the necessary infrastructure – also in Europe – are not yet in place, van Son noted.

Initial Desertec pilot projects are slated to go into operation in Morocco already in 2014. Politically and technologically, the country is ready for a partnership, confirmed Saïd Mouline, Director of the National Agency for the Development of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency in Rabat. That does not hold true for other countries, however, due to major differences in interests that threaten the regional success of the project. Europe could certainly do more to promote an energy partnership between the neighboring countries. Closer economic integration could also contribute to regional stability. In Mouline’s view, rapid progress is also being hampered by legal hurdles for energy exports to Europe – an assertion reflected in current news items about Spain’s “blockade” of transmission lines to Europe.

Europe can do more

The Mediterranean region not only provides the framework for an economic rapprochement between Europe and North Africa, it is also the scene of a refugee drama in which people’s attempts to reach Europe have cost them their lives time and again. European refugee policy currently undermines the legitimacy of the EU in the region to a greater degree than its previous support of despots, Heba Morayef noted. If Europe’s Neighborhood Policy intends to provide concrete socioeconomic assistance to the partner countries, it must assure the people of North Africa greater mobility to Europe, reiterated Barbara Unmüssig, Member of the Board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Speaking from her own experience in Tunisia, Kerstin Müller, Foreign Policy Speaker of the Greens in the Bundestag, confirmed that the creation of legal employment opportunities in Europe was a recurring topic in discussions of possible EU assistance. Nominal facilitation measures were currently being undermined by a restrictive visa policy, a “cynical” approach in Unmüssig’s opinion.

The EU still has considerable scope for action in providing support for civil society in the countries of the Arab Spring, according to Doreen Khoury of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, an organization that has done considerable work with NGOs in Lebanon. At present, financial assistance is seldom granted to organizations critical of their respective governments, and such assistance is generally handled in an excessively restrictive manner. Many organizations today are already excluded by the onerous administrative burden of the application procedures, Khoury said. In order to ensure better conditions for the work of critical NGOs, the EU should base its cooperation more decisively on the adoption of suitable protection laws, Unmüssig added.

Oded Eran argued for an unconventional approach, suggesting that Europe could involve North African countries that recognize the European code of values ​​in European decision-making processes in very specific areas. Common rules on human rights, environmental policy, or a common fisheries policy would bring everyone closer together, Eran said. Franziska Brantner supported Eran’s proposal and noted that a rapprochement of Europe and the Arab world should not be limited to the state level. Projects for sustainable tourism, sister city agreements, student exchanges and similar measures at regional and municipal levels could bypass many of the political obstacles that are so hard to overcome at the government level.

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