Arab Revolutions: what next?

Prieuré of Val Duchesse
24 February 2011

Roundtable organised by the MEDEA Institute and the Egmont Institute

Arab Revolutions: what next?

What European policy in the Arab World?


This roundtable brought together different actors active in the Arab World, at institutional, academic or civil society levels. The roundtable sought to offer an opportunity for the different actors to exchange views and think about how to optimise actions in the region in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue.

A number of observations on the path taken and, most importantly, the failures of the foreign policy of the EU were brought forward during this in house discussion, as well as various suggestions to be taken into consideration for the future. This document offers a synthesis of these ideas.




A critical eye on Euro-Arab relations

Europe, and the Western as a whole, holds its share of responsibility in the prevailing situation in Arab countries.

While the creation of the European External Action Service, under the supervision of Catherine Ashton, was meant to create a true European diplomatic culture, breaking away from national foreign policies to pursue European strategic interest, foreign policy has remained a national prerogative for European Heads of State. EU has failed in the past to fight against the consolidation of privileged bilateral relations such as those enjoyed by Italy and France with Libya and Tunisia respectively. These strong intergovernmental relations are now jeopardizing the influence of EU diplomacy. They can thus be held responsible for the lack of European reactivity to revolts in the Arab World.

In addition to its lack of credibility, the EU has committed many mistakes in its approach to the region:

  • The EU has faced increasing criticism regarding its role in the democratisation of the Arab World, criticised for pursuing a « double standard » policy. Indeed, Article 2 of the Association Agreements sets a conditionality of respect of democratic principles and fundamental rights. However, facts show that the EU has contributed to maintaining certain authoritarian regimes in power, while proving much less complacent with the Syrian regime that happens to have refused to sign an Association Agreement. In general terms, the EU can be blamed for a lack of political transparency in the Mediterranean region.
  • The European Neighbourhood Policy was built as economic partnership tool, which has proven to benefit European interests and provide a security cordon around Europe, often at the expense of the peoples.
  • The recent Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) is very unpopular in the Arab World. Similar to its predecessor the Barcelona Process, this initiative is considered a means for the EU to impose Israel, from which the latter excludes itself through its rhetoric and political actions. With the UfM failing to win the trust of the peoples concerned, the Euro-Arab dialogue should be revived.
  • The European Union has not granted any support to the real civil society nor to opponents to dictatorial regimes, although it has contributed to the creation of a class of civil society entrepreneurs, in line with regimes in place, hand-picked to receive western funds while nourishing a positive image of their respective countries. The real civil society has thus lost confidence in the European institutions that has systematically failed to support its actions.
  • In general terms, the EU can be blamed for a lack of transparency of its policy in the Mediterranean region, along with its slow-moving and complex bureaucratic structures.


Wrong interpretation of events

Until now, Europe has considered democracy in the Arab World a risk, as it has judged the socio-political developments of the region through three negative angles : Islamism ; instability ; and insecurity for Israel.

Moreover, the EU has had a distorted vision of reality as it has for too long exclusively consolidated links with the entrepreneurial fringe of most westernised fringes of civil society, often ignorant of the reality to which is confronted the majority of the population. In addition, the main objectives of these fringes of civil society have been to represent the embodiment of the regimes in major international gatherings. The real society has been marginalised as it failed to correspond to the predefined criteria set by foreign powers and their diplomacies; this element supports the case made for better linguistic and cultural training of EU and Member States representatives in these countries.

Today, European institutions are overworked. Their understanding of events is built upon old paradigms of Arab exception, which excuse the absence of democracy and the existence of autocratic regimes on the basis of culturalist arguments, and on the necessity to support « stable » regimes to confront mass immigration and terrorism. From this has resulted great hesitation in the positions to be taken, when the EU should have demonstrated unconditional support for ongoing democratic developments. Europe, the symbol of democratic values through its speeches and declarations, is faced with its contradictions: the aspirations of the Arab peoples do not appear to be at the centre of its preoccupations.


Democratic movements and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The outbreak of democratic aspirations throughout the Arab World has consequences on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that cannot be overlooked.

The Palestinian people have criticised Europe for its « double standard » attitudes. Palestinians are witnessing popular revolts obtaining results and suddenly recognised by the international community, while they have struggled for years with their demands largely unheard. Human rights violations by Israel remain systematically unpunished.

On the other hand, both Lebanon and Palestine, former bastions of democracy in the Arab World, both find themselves in an unstable and divided situation. Europe can be partly held responsible as, having pushed Palestinians to carry out elections in 2006 they failed to recognised the results, thus contributing to the current division of the Palestinian leadership. This observation seems to call for a necessity to establish and develop safeguards in the democratic process to avoid the total domination of one group over another and to thus securitise democracy and its international recognition.

Finally, the outbreak of these democratic movements threatens Israel. The official reason is the concern that the phase of transition will profit Ismalist parties. But another concern is that Israel will no longer be in a position to invoke the argument that it is the sole democracy in the Middle East. Furthermore, there is a risk for the Jewish State that the Egyptian regime rethinks its foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel, a policy which its population considers humiliating.



On the basis of these observations, it is possible to draw out certain conclusions and make certain propositions for the future of our relations with the Arab world.


Redefining European policies vis-à-vis the Arab world

It is by going beyond grand declarations and implementing concrete and courageous changes in its foreign policy that the EU will gain in credibility in the Arab and Mediterranean world. This will allow the EU to position itself as an influential actor capable of supporting the democratic aspirations of the peoples while supporting simultaneously defending its strategic interests in the region.

Until now, the package offered to the South had failed to be harmonious. It is important to calculate the consequences of our choices on the long-term. With the events currently taking place in the Arab world, the EU cannot allow itself to overlook a precise and concerted redefinition of its interests in the region, while developing a better understanding of the situations of our Mediterranean neighbours. The EU must therefore take the time to fully reconsider its Neighbourhood policy in line with its Southern neighbourhood.

Furthermore, the development of bureaucracy has never been an adapted response. It is crucial to rethink bureaucracy and EU representations in the Arab world – as well as worldwide – in terms of quality rather than quantity.

In addition, the role of European and national parliaments in foreign policy must be enhanced to avoid a remake of past mistakes.

Finally, the Union for the Mediterranean is very unpopular in the Arab world. It is now moribund and has failed to allow the achievement of set objectives. A suggestion offered is to bring back to life the Euro-Arab dialogue.


Support of the democratic transition process

The transition period is crucial. The roots of tomorrow’s democratic regimes must be built today. However, the time at hand appears too limited to allow a real democratic debate. The holding of elections is not an objective in itself, as democracy without pluralism has no value. It is essential to allow first of all for all voices to be heard.

The EU and its Member States must focus on two aspects for now: listen and be informed on the one hand, and help in the development of tools necessary to create platforms for debate on the other hand. Two European attitudes are putting this in jeopardy:

–          Its tendency to want to secure as soon as possible its economic and business relations with these countries ;

–          A temptation to dictate the rules of the democratic game to exclude the forces that do not correspond to its expectations ;

Despite fears of political Islam and the impacts of these revolts on the stability of the region, the UE must accept the uncertainties caused by this transition phase in the Arab world. It is thus not a question of supporting one or the other party, but to ensure the conditions for a good transition in the region. The EU must evaluate correctly the limits of its intervention to avoid any accusation of interference.

Furthermore, the international community must bear in mind that the forces in power are not elected forces. To negotiate the future of our relations with them implies the failure to take into account the voices of the peoples. The question of the debt has, for instance, already been brought up by the transitional Tunisian government. But many insist that an important part of this debt is execrable and has thus never been put at the profit of the Tunisian people. Another example is the organisation of a Congress in Carthage, Tunisia, between the transitional government and representatives of the international community; those attending risk staining their image amongst those who have led the revolution.

In a phase of transition, supposed to lay the constitutional ground for future democracies, our parliaments, both national and European, have a role to play, know-how to share.


  1. Support of Arab civil society

European civil societies have never stopped enjoying close contacts with Arab civil societies. It would be wise for the European institutions and EU Member States to make good use of these civil societies ties in working closely with Arab civil society.

In this context, the European and national parliaments can also serve as safeguards in requesting greater transparency of the types of civil society organisations supported by the European Commission and national governments.