Avoid chaos, bet on the young democracies

In North Africa, the dust of the Arab Spring has settled and new regimes have been established. But while Tunisia is praised as ‘country of the year’ by The Economist, Libya has fallen into dissension and Egypt is back at the point it was before the revolution. Unfortunately for Libya and Egypt: the EU seems more eager to help democracies rather than chaotic states.

Those who walk through the streets of Tunis, Tunisia, nowadays, will notice the leaps forward the country has made since the Arab spring. Bookstores are stuffed with books which were forbidden under former president Ben Ali and the newspapers are filled with new and uncensored content. Freedom of speech – which is immured in the country’s brand new constitution – has obviously changed a lot.

9610180232_d44e16fb1f_oIf we take a look at Tunisia’s neighbours Egypt and Libya, we see the other side of the ‘Arabic Spring’. General Sisi is ruling in a similar way as Mubarak and Libya has fallen into disunity, which is expressed through the many factions and the two parliaments the country has at the moment. Add to it a shattered airport and the destroyed infrastructure in general. Why is Tunisia so successful while its neighbours are falling apart?

“The absence of a strong and overruling army as you have in Egypt is a real difference,” says Jan Jaap de Ruiter, assistant professor in Arabic culture and publicist. “Also the lack of different groups as in Libya and the fact that Tunisia is not a strategic piece of North-Africa helped.”

Egypt, which can be seen as a strategic piece of land due to its border with Israel, had simply a too strong regime under Mubarak, says Emeritus Professor William Zartman, who is a renowned publicist and founder of the International Peace and Security Institute. “The Liberal forces and popular protesters were so strongly influenced by Mubarak’s Mukhabarat [Intelligent service] that they had no organisation, no strategy and no unity. Three things in which the military excelled.” De Ruiter adds: “General Sisi can be considered a Mubarak II.”

Tunisia is a totally different story. There is no such progressive constitution in the Arabic world such as the one Tunisia approved last year. The new document, which took two years to draft, due to a vigorous debate and two assassinations, secures human rights and more popular sovereignty. “With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship,” said interim-president of Tunisia and human rights activist Moncef Marzouki after the new document was launched. And yes: the traces of the human rights activists are clearly visible in the document: for example men and women are equal and the constitution doesn’t mention Islam or other religions at all. “Much work remains, to make the values of our constitution a part of our culture,” Marzouki said.

Former EU-president Van Rompuy visits Tunisia one week after the new constitution is signed. © The European Commission
Former EU-president Van Rompuy visits Tunisia one week after the new constitution is signed. © The European Commission

It’s obvious that the country could use some extra help here from the west, but how? During the outbreak of the Arab Spring, international powers were slow in their reaction. The EU wasn’t able to formulate a clear and direct answer to the events and The United States were ambivalent about dropping Mubarak as an ally. They only dropped him when it became clear that him leaving was inevitable; the former-Egyptian leader took a key-role in strategic USA–Middle East relations.

America’s strategic interests in North Africa are limited to Egypt; other states in this region are secondary, Volker Perthes, director of Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), writes in a study. “Washington made that very clear in connection with the Libyan war, which it would have preferred to leave completely to its European allies.”

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Commission during the Arab Spring © European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari
Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Commission during the Arab Spring © European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari

This of course gave space to big neighbour Europe. “The European Union has to be a union and not 28 different states,” Professor Zartman says. Jan Jaap de Ruiter doesn’t see the need for this: “It’s too early to expect that the 28 member states will formulate a joint vision, but this is not a problem at all. As long as the EU is struggling with the democratic deficit, different nations will want to decide for themselves when it comes to situations likes this.”

France for example was really quick to respond to Libya’s uprising, Britain followed shortly afterwards and Germany wasn’t in the spotlight at all. But maybe more invisible than Germany was Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union and in theory the face of the EU across the continent’s borders.

Numbers prove the individual approach of the different member states. Tunisia for example receives 52 percent of its total support (423 million Euros) from France while Germany is more eager to sponsor Egypt. Libya in its turn mainly depends on the generosity of the United States.

Muriel Asseburg, researcher at SWP, concludes in a report that the EU only booked success in countries where the democratic process has already started: “Tunisia is definitely the one example where the EU was able to support the institutional process, competitive elections, and civil society, and thus contribute to a political transition toward a more participatory, inclusive, and pluralist political system.” He is more critical about the EU’s approach when it comes to nations that underwent a ‘rougher’ Arab Spring. “The EU and its member states have been largely reduced to being bystanders,” he writes. Failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have scared the EU and western countries in general which has resulted in waiting with military action until it is really inevitable.

Total amount of aid coming from EU-institutions. © OECD/DAC
Total amount of aid coming from EU-institutions.

The EU wasn’t completely absent. On the contrary, it did really quickly launch a 350 million Euro programme called SPRING (Support to Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth), in order to support North Africa financially in democratic reforms. This only works out for stable regimes as seen in Tunisia. Recent aid-numbers by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from EU-institutions towards North-Africa between 2011 and 2013 shows this very well: Tunisia received 1.4bn Euros, Egypt €835m Euros and Libya only €139m

If you take into consideration that Libya has the most disruptive problems and Egypt is much larger than Tunisia, you have a remarkable spread of aid. The EU has proven its preference for young democracies above turbulent states, with a 2013 decision to cut Egypt’s aid completely.

The wound of intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq is still fresh. And with a union divided when it come to foreign affairs, it seems safe to bet on young democracies which will reward with satisfying results in the end.

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