Hopes for Democratization in the Arab World

February 8th, 2012   North Africa

“Where the future is uncertain, there are greater opportunities and many reasons to influence” writes Gunnar Hökmark on the developments following the Arab spring. He is convinced that when “the United States turns inward, because the country has its own domestic problems and that there is an aversion to involvement in other countries, it is important that the EU steps up and takes responsibility.”

Rarely has it been so difficult to predict global political developments. The developments in Europe are uncertain. And the U.S. economy encompasses many problems including a deficit that weakens the role in the world that the United States is willing and able to play. At the same time the Chinese economy is rapidly up-and-coming providing increased strength to this totalitarian dictatorship. In addition, a number of emerging economies have a growing influence in the global economy and numerous political forces are competing for regions and countries’ future developments. In this respect China has an active agenda trying to gain influence. Russia has an energy policy that seeks by pressure other countries to closer cooperation. In the Middle East, we see a trend where countries like Iran aggressively want to set a new agenda. This policy is combined with an Islamic agendas vying for political power in those North African countries that are opening up to the possibilities of democracy.

We can’t take the changes for granted in neither North Africa nor the Middle East. Though, we know that this work in progress can’t be stopped.

Where the future is uncertain, there are great possibilities and need to influence. This is true for Europe and the EU that in these parts of the world should act as a model – combining an open society with personal freedom, democracy and prosperity. We also need to strengthen the democratic forces that work for the individual’s rights and dignity. In that way we can support a development strengthening market economy and growth, as well as secular societies built on the rule of law and democracy. All these efforts contribute to an advanced society, but also to a more peaceful and stable environment.

The Arab spring has shown that the fundamental rights and freedoms are not a uniquely Western phenomenon. A way of thinking only in the rich parts of the world. Instead it is what many of us – but not all – have always maintained, common to all mankind. The citizens in the U.S. and Europe are not the only ones wanting to express ourselves freely, choose who should govern our country and permitting us to set up a market stall without getting it confiscated.

The will to freedom and a decent life is as strong in the Arab world as in our. Questions are many where the Arab world is heading. Two different scenarios are conceivable, though to the extreme both might be useful as reference points.

In the first scenario al-Assad in Syria succeed in staying in power by using unrestrained violence against its own citizens. Russia and China continue to block a UN resolution and international action. As the death toll reaches even higher numbers than already today, the people give up and buckle under the brutal violence. During this time Europe looks silently at the tyrant’s oppression. The Arab socialism under the Baath Party remains.

Al-Assad’s victory has effect on the rest of the region. The success of using violence and oppression strengthens the audacity of those who would rather see brutal violence than give up their power. Iran becomes stronger. The Arab spring might turn into winter without any democratic progress.

Repression is preserved. No further dictatorships will fall. In countries where a revolt had already taken place the old oppressors will be replaced with new ones. The Islamists who present themselves as moderates – in Egypt and Tunisia – might be dominated by uncompromising forces. Women’s position will be weakened, democracy will be put out of action and the market economy will never be put to use to create wealth. Individual human rights and dignity will be lost in favor of a more or less totalitarian system.

The countries are turning away from the West, taking the inner road. The mobility will be limited both in terms of goods, services and capital as well as people and information. There is no intra-regional integration. The liberal forces never have time to unite and form a critical mass and disappear into the periphery and the underworld.

In the second scenario al-Assad will be defeated thanks to international pressure in combination with the Syrian people’s courage. Syria becomes the first major Arab country outside of North Africa where the Arab revolt led to drastic changes, creating surges of freedom in the region, where various regimes – for fear that the development will spread to their countries – will ease its repression.

The Arab Baath socialism will be relegated to the history as happened to socialism in Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. Iran loses its most important allies in the region. In Tunisia and Egypt the election-winning Islamists will be as moderate as they claim. These parties will move towards the Turkish AK party, rather than Sunni extremism. They become the Arab world’s equivalent of the Christian Democrats, developing stability, transparency, rule of law and market economy. Openness to the outside world becomes a key strategy, and the countries in the region are integrated among themselves, with the EU and its single market as a model.

A European perspective will create a new image, that of the renewal of the Arab society. Thanks to freedom of association and freedom of the press the Islamic-democratic parties are challenged by liberal movements that have managed to build a critical mass. Within a decade democratic elections have brought about change of power and no violence has occurred.

The two scenarios are, as I said, drawn to the extreme. There are lots of variations and nuances to be discussed. And it is important to remember that the choice made by the Arab world is important also to Europe. In Europe we have an obligation to do utmost to influence the region in the right direction. Although these countries are far from Sweden the region is a close neighbor to Europe. Our influence is considerable, and has the potential to be even greater.

In a world where America turns inward, because of its own domestic problems and that there is an aversion to a global involvement, it is important that the EU steps up and takes responsibility. It was mainly the British and French forces that maintained the no-fly zone over Libya. Today we have to show a different strength and power in terms of ideas that will constitute the basis for future developments in this part of the world.

Our policy must be designed to realize as much as possible of scenario two. This means free access to European markets, capacity building support for democratic forces and help to maintain transparency in different ways. This benefits both us and the Arab countries. The liberal forces in North Africa and the Middle East should know that they have a friend in the European Union.

To accomplish this is a task for the EU, governments and political parties. In support of democratic forces an infinite number of tasks will be realized as soon as we see the opportunities that exist.

Text: Gunnar Hökmark, MEP and Head of the EPP Group for Neighbourhood Policy

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