2011, a transitional year

Retrospective 2011


Looking back over the year 2011 confirms that it will certainly remain etched in the annals in the same way than has been the pivotal year 1989. While we cannot yet talk about real paradigm shift in the Arab world, there is no doubt the deal has changed in the region.

We will not return to the events as such, that our editorials throughout the years have tried to relate and comment. We will try to assess this year and its consequences not only for the region, but also for the relations between Europe and the Mediterranean.

If some things have changed in 2011, it goes without saying that the principal is still to be done. We will therefore review not only the achievements but also the challenges of this new regional deal.



The gains of 2011 are numerous. It is important to emphasize them to know the basis on which it is possible to move forward. These achievements could be analyzed from different perspectives. Here, we choose a geographical perspective, to highlight the development of opportunities for the Euro-Arab relations.

For the South

The situations in the South are still very different. Between Tunisia, engaged with a firm step on the path of transition, Syria fighting a daily battle to reach it and Saudi Arabia that seems far away from it, the political situations in the Arab world as well as the challenges that are posed are different from one situation to another even if they have a common inspiration.

Another thing that seems now gained: the population is no longer afraid. The people realized that it was the source of the power, and could therefore put it in question. What is ultimately a dictator without the people who obey him? This awareness is valuable and must be maintained to sustain democratic gains.

Finally, it is now possible to assert that a process is initiated. There is no doubt that the road to democracy will be long and difficult, but setbacks do not seem to be possible anymore.

For the North

The Europeans have followed as many others, the events in the Arab world. No one expected, in Europe as elsewhere, this Arab democratic breath. And even if some ill-advised voices seemed frightened by this change, it seems primarily to have changed the perceptions of Europeans vis-à-vis their southern neighbors.

European civil society – the one in relation to the Arab world, enthusiasm marked the early days of riots. But was quickly followed by an intense work of information and awareness raising of the general public and the politics on the opportunities offered by the « Arab spring ». Yet 2011 is ending with many frustrations and disappointments. While the EU has attempted some light of its policy, it has not yet had the courage to review it in depth.

However, for continuing to speak of achievements, the Arab world remains a big challenge, and now seems to hold an essential place in the agenda of the EU and its member states. The effort continues, and it should be encouraged.

And challenges

The gains are not legion, but appear solid. They now pose a foundation on which will now be posed a series of challenges.

The Arab democratic challenge

As noted above, the situations are different between countries that initiated a true democratic process and the ones that are only witnessing signs of it. However the dynamics is started.

For some people, the challenge is still very precise; they have to defeat the old regime. This question is first the one of Syria, which still counts many deaths each day. But it also arises in Egypt, where despite the departure of Mubarak, the military is still a remaining part of the old regime and opposes the functioning of the democratic process.

Another challenge lays in the recent elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco that led Islamist parties to power. As being the main opposition organizations in previous years, the structures of these parties has enabled them to win the election game, and this to the detriment of the initiators of the rebellion, often young and from a secular trend. These forces have to play the democratic game  all together. The example of Tunisia as such is very important because it is the most successful democratic transitions in progress.

Morocco, also represent an important test because it is the first country to reform without knowing a real uprising. Its success could lead other Arab monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Qatar on the same path.

Also a challenge that Europe faces

As noted above, the Arab Democratic challenge also arises in the EU. Still cautious vis-à-vis the changes taking place in its south neighborhood, it is necessary for Europe to seize the opportunities it is offering.

If the EU must change its policy in the Arab world, it is not in a altruistic logic, but because it is in its own interest of stability and prosperity. But this requires more than a short-term logic that pushes to think in terms of safety and immediate economic benefits. In a way, it is necessary to return to Barcelona program to build with the Mediterranean « an area of ​​shared prosperity ». To this end, the EU must take the measure of change and reorganize its policy in a courageous and consistent way, to supporting the transition and to push – without interfering – those who have not yet initiated it to begin.

The election of Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco are the main challenges that will arise next year in EU policy towards the Arab world. Following the European enthusiasm for Arab popular uprisings, this development has revived old fears of anti-Western Islamist threat. And this concern finally re-uses the grid of understanding conveyed by the dictators like Mubarak or Ben Ali.

Europe must make the effort to change its perceptions, which must pass by a better understanding of the Arab world but also by respect for democratic values ​​and human rights on which it has been itself based.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The Arab Spring could have made forget the importance of the resolution of this conflict for the region. With the first Arab revolts, many Palestinians felt mixed feelings: a joy that things are changing of course, but also a disappointment that the Western powers support the struggling peoples, while they never clearly supported the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Seizing a share of luck with the changing regional context, Mahmoud Abbas has nevertheless made a motion to ask for the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN. This request could have been easy to be accepted by a European Union whose aim has always been the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But no, the request of Mahmoud Abbas has not received the European support. The EU, chilly once again, failed to agree or to distance itself from the United States.

Anxious to remain on good terms with the Arab states in transition, some European powers have found alternatives, such as recognition of Palestine to UNESCO. But what is a recognition in an organ of the UN and the denial of that recognition within the United Nations themselves?

In the same way it seems to have mismanaged the Arab spring, European foreign policy has not proven itself able to manage the question of Palestine. Yet the issue is central for the region. On the one hand, it is the sticking point of most attempts to rally the Mediterranean countries. On the other hand, it is the main example of the policy of double standards too long led by the EU.


Ultimately, though hopes are slim to see the development of a coherent and courageous European policy vis-à-vis the Arab world, there is always some hope. Beyond the political development of Arab societies, it is also the founding values ​​of our societies that are involved in the events that are shaking the changing societies in the South Mediterranean.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée