How the Arab Spring can save Europe's international ambitions
By Anno Bunnik
One of the most striking elements of the outside involvement in the Arab Spring is the failure of the Obama administration to develop a comprehensive approach in dealing with the uprisings.
The United States is unable to truly champion freedom and democracy, largely due to its close relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This provides opportunities for other actors – such as the European Union or China – to upgrade its engagement with the region.
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The legitimate uprising against minority dictatorship in Bahrain is largely ignored by Washington, which fears losing the headquarters of its fifth fleet in Manama. When Saudi tanks crossed the bridge to crush the Shi’a uprising in Bahrain, Obama kept silent not wanting to alienate Riyadh. And most important of all, American ties with Israel are unwavering despite the continued occupation and settlement activity. These developments continue to contaminate the image of Obama in the region.
When speaking to Arab friends – both Muslims and Christians – about the role of the US, the usual reply is “double standards” often followed by the remark that Obama is no different from Bush. “At least with Bush you knew what you got”.
Obama raised the hope of the Arab street with his famous 2009 Cairo speech, in which he talked about restoring relations between the West and Muslim world and even used the term "Palestine" – a significant change in discourse and unprecedented for an American president.
Recent polls by the Arab American Institute Foundation indicate that 90 percent of the Egyptian people believe that Obama has not met the standards that he set in his speech two years ago. Even in Arab states aligned to the US, a large majority of the population does not agree with current American policies. From Morocco to UAE, less than ten percent support Obama’s policies.
These developments create space for other actors to engage in the region. This void could in the long run be occupied by China, possibly endangering the potential for democracy to flourish. But it could also be filled by the EU building strategic ties with the new Middle East.
The EU's reputation in the Middle East is not tainted by unquestioned support for Israel. Unlike the US, the EU is able to stand for peace and justice, freedom and democracy, rather than with one of the belligerent parties involved.
The current uprising is reminiscent of 1789. The Arab Spring is their "Bastille", knocking at the gates of dictatorship and oppression. This shared experience could serve to cement mutual understanding and provide the ideological foundation for a mode of governing that respects the desires of its citizens.
Due to its relatively clean reputation, the EU could dare to step out of the shadow of the US and develop its own comprehensive approach to the region. The European External Action Service is an ideal instrument in this regard.
This approach could entail capturing the role of ‘honest broker’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mediating between both parties. After all, the EU can pride itself with longstanding experience in extensive and successful post-conflict resolution. It should transcend its usual shyness when dealing with conflict resolution in the Middle East and try to find new paths to facilitate diplomacy.
Furthermore, the comprehensive approach could include assistance with political liberalisation and Security Sector Reform. Although the security sector in this region will likely be hesitant to reform – as it often has economic and political interests - post-Arab Spring states will require aid in changing the undemocratic government structures that have been fostered by previous dictators.
Part of this approach includes fostering political liberalisation through support for civil society, such as free press and non-governmental organisations. Independent journalism and NGOs in the region are scarce and require a supportive environment unrestricted by government practices. It is up to the EU to stress its importance and invest in this vital aspect of society.
Furthermore, good relations between Europe and the Middle East on the political front will likely also have economic ramifications. The EU should therefore support a comprehensive approach of political and economic liberalisation and recognize the legitimate aspirations for all people to live in dignity and prosperity.
If the EU manages to develop and implement such a strategic approach it will not only protect the region from greater Chinese influence in the long run, but also give meaning to its own international ambitions. The Arab Spring therefore provides the ideal opportunity for the EU to maintain an important player in world politics.
The writer is a political analyst from the Netherlands and regularly blogs about EU-Middle East relations: annobunnik.wordpress.com