international analysis and commentary

The windy road of Arab transitions and Europe’s weak hand


Once again the Middle East is taking a series of unpredictable detours where, seemingly, nothing goes as planned.

Tunisia, considered a trailblazer in the region, origin of the Jasmine Revolution, symbol of a smooth transition process, characterized by consensus and inclusiveness, is torn by ideological cleavages, political violence, economic crisis and a broader lack of confidence in its own capacity to overcome the current stalemate.

Egypt, considered the bad boy of the revolutions, is continuing its bumpy road towards a new form of government and state-society relations. The new constitution, after being analyzed carefully, is less revolutionary than it might seem. While not extremely dangerous in terms of limiting civil liberties, including minority and women’s rights, according to many it will likely create problems given its vagueness and juxtaposition of articles and norms which fail a consistency test. The economy, which until recently seemed on the verge of salvation through an IMF loan, is now set to derail (given the quickly decreasing monetary reserves within an overall economic fragile context) if an agreement is not negotiated..

One thing the Egyptian and the Tunisian transitions have in common is the criticism their ruling Islamist parties are receiving in terms of delivering the public goods they were entrusted with providing. Often cited is the lack of competence, the inexperience, the divisions, found within these parties. Personal charisma of the newly elected leaders in neither country suffices to placate public discontent and discomfort. Both countries show the difficulties of changing political cultures and adapting to new ones: while contestation has become much more widespread than before the revolutions, it has by no means become a standard accepted practice. The Egyptian independent trade union, created after the start of the revolution, struggles to operate and some of its members have been persecuted. Cleavages take many forms in both countries but are not limited to the one between secularists and Islamists of various stripes, or those between urban and rural areas, or even the cross-cutting ones, for example on socio-economic issues. There, unexpectedly, Egyptian Muslim Brothers defend their free market, neo-liberal world view, while the Tunisian Ennahda adheres less strictly to this paradigm.

Both countries are undergoing dangerous episodes of political violence, as has been the case with the assassination of a prominent leftist politician in Tunisia. Europe is struggling to find its voice, as it is worried about sounding patronizing if it criticizes the turn these transitions are taking. It fears alienating these new elites with whom a process of confidence-building is still underway, and ending up, as often is the case, with a ”go it alone” approach. Some European countries are expressing their reservations and concerns privately to these leaderships, others, as France, do it so publicly.

At a time of negotiations over the EU budget for the next seven years and its implications for the resources allocated to the Neighbourhood, one is struck by Brussels’ silence over the Southern Mediterranean turmoil. This is even more striking if one considers the upcoming visit by President Obama in the Middle East, the first regional tour of his second term. While the US is defining its stance vis-à-vis the different dossiers which will be tackled, from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, to Syria, to Libya and Egypt, European capitals seem, once again, absorbed in their euro-centric worries.

While antagonizing other countries’ elites has historically hardly proven to be a successful recipe for fruitful dialogue, refraining from expressing preferences might end diluting Europe’s potential of support to the region. One should bear in mind that the Arab Awakening was not a series of events with a start and an end date, but an ongoing process. The process is irreversible, but its shape can be influenced by the way in which, among other things, external actors find suitable ways to communicate and negotiate over their preferences and core interests.