24th Oct 2021


Ten years on from Tahrir: EU's massive missed opportunity

  • Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, 10 years ago. The Arab world has changed - the EU's neighbourhood policy not so much (Photo: Koert Debeuf)

This Monday (25 January), it's exactly 10 years ago that thousands of young Egyptians risked their life and went to Tahrir Square in Cairo to ask for the end of the regime.

They demanded freedom, democracy, bread, but - perhaps most of all - the end of police violence. It is no accident that the April 6 Youth Movement chose 25 January to start their revolution. In Egypt, it is the national day of the police.

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I lived in Cairo from 2011 to 2016. I was sent by the liberal ALDE group of the European Parliament, now Renew Europe. And I wrote a blog for the EUobserver.

My task was first to try to understand what was going on in the Arab world, something that was difficult to grasp for most Europeans.

The Middle East and North Africa was and still is a great part of the European neighbourhood. But very few Europeans had any idea of what was brewing there.

For example, when the Libyans started their revolt against their dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a European ambassador advised the EU to keep supporting Gaddafi, as he would remain in power anyway.

A wrong assessment during the upheavals themselves, however, is still more-or-less understandable. The lack of proper action during the years after 2011 is a more bitter story. For that, let's concentrate on Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Tunisia's economy

In Tunisia, the transition to democracy was successful.

This was partly due to the fact that no party, not even the Tunisian Muslim Brothers (Ennahda Movement), ever got a majority of the votes. The coalition governments since the elections of 2011 always had to look for a compromise between religious and secular parties.

However, just like we witnessed after 1989 in central Europe, people had too high hopes from their newly-elected leaders and were then quickly disillusioned.

And unlike central European countries, there was no prospect of joining the EU and there were no European investment. This made, and still makes, the democratic transition vulnerable.

In a visit to Tunis, then president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, promised his Tunisian counterpart, Beji Caid Essebsi, €600m, but the money never came. Instead, Italy's prime minister, Matteo Renzi, told the Tunisians that they would get the money if they took the refugees that arrived in Italy.

So much for EU's genuine support for Tunisia.

Libyan migration

Libya's story is even worse.

After Nato, under pressure from France, decided to stop Gaddafi's army from entering and massacring Benghazi and help the Libyans defeat Gaddafi, everything went back to normal.

Again, French and Italian embassies were more busy with oil contracts than with the stability of the country.

The new Libyan government asked for help with the protection of their borders. The EU border mission came one year later and never managed to do much.

Libya asked for help to train their police force. The EU said that was not their competence.

By 2013 it was clear that Libya was a train speeding towards the buffers. But, again, the EU was too slow and too divided to help to prevent the train wreck. `

When Libya sank into chaos, and refugees and migrants fled to Europe, the EU woke up - but was still too divided to help Libya forward.

Now, the EU finally seems to be able to speak with one voice and facilitate peace talks, after 10 wasted years.

Egypt's decorated dictator

When, in June 2012, Mohamed Morsi became the first democratically-elected president of Egypt, the EU understood something needed to be done.

The commission came up with a shameful idea: to repackage the existing EU aid to Egypt and give it another name, the EU-Egypt Taskforce.

The EU promised the same €200m it already was already giving to Egypt, plus some extra loans.

From 2011 to 2019 the total budget for Egypt amounted to €1.6bn - but a large part of that money was never paid, as Egypt did not meet the EU conditions.

During the same period, the Gulf countries gave Egypt no less than €75bn, without conditions. No wonder that Egypt stopped listening to the EU and joined the camp of Saudi Arabia.

It is true that it is (almost) impossible to compete financially with the Gulf.

But the EU is not only about money. Europe has a democratic moral authority. Therefore many leaders around the world seek its endorsement in one way or another.

They also hate to be criticised by the European Parliament for their shameful human rights record. These things matter more than many Europeans think.

However, the impact of this 'moral authority' is, of course, crushed when several European countries decide to give priority to selling arms, fighter jets and warships to Egypt.

And clearly, when Emmanuel Macron grants Egypt's strongman, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the highest French decoration, these parliamentary resolutions are reduced to toilet paper.

Lessons learned?

The most important factors of political instability in Europe of the last 10 years, apart from Covid-19, were migration and terrorism.

Both had their origins mostly in the Arab world. Chaos there means chaos here.

Therefore, investing in the Arab world in a smart way, is also investing in the European Union's future itself.

Let's hope that the disasters of the past decade help to shape the neighbourhood policy of the next 10 years.

If the EU ignores this once more, it will be confronted once again with the same revolutionary chaos somewhere in the decade to come.

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Ten years on from Tahrir: EU's massive missed opportunity

Investing in the Arab world, in a smart way, is also investing in the European Union's future itself. Let's hope that the disasters of the last decade help to shape the neighbourhood policy of the next 10 years.

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