The New Middle East: Rising to the challenge and sticking to our values
Roland Freudenstein 28 February 2011Head of Research The New Middle East: Rising to the challenge and sticking to our valuesExecutive Summary:The debate about how to assess the unfolding events in the Middle East and NorthAfrica (MENA) has only just begun. Nevertheless, some constants of this debate arealready visible: Is this more like ‘89 (Central and Eastern Europe), or ‘79 (Iran)? Howmuch political influence is the West really losing? Who and what are the drivingfactors behind these revolts? What kind of political systems will emerge? How willthis influence regional conflicts, such as Israel-Palestine, or the situation in Iran?The paramount question for the EPP family, which cannot be answered without atleast having looked at the other questions, is of course: With whom to talk and withwhom to cooperate in the New Middle East, and how the EU should adapt itspolicies vis-a-vis the region?The New Middle East presents a formidable challenge to Europe’s Centre Right.The situation is extremely volatile and bears enormous risks. But it also presents uswith a rare opportunity to help make the region freer and more secure than ever.Different from 1989, the West is not the automatic winner. But different from 1979,Islamist revolutions are not the likely outcome in most MENA countries.Nevertheless, Islamism is a factor and an anti-Western (including anti-Israeli) axisaround Iran is a possibility. It is in Europe’s and America’s interest to helpChristians and secular democrats in the region prevent the spread of Islamism,and to help them support human rights and secular democracy.In this process, Europe’s strongest political family, and the foundations and NGOsassociated with it, can and should play a pivotal role. On the EU level, the EPPshould argue for a reform of the European Neighbourhood Policy in order tofacilitate a new transformation partnership with the Southern flank of theMediterranean, emphasise democratic values anew and use conditionality.Helping to build democracies will be more sustainable than supporting stagnantautocratic regimes. This will also be the best way to prevent or at least diminishrefugee movements from North Africa.What is most important, especially in Egypt as a pivotal country in the region, is tofocus on the newly developing landscape of parties and NGOs and to help themdevelop sustainable structures through training, consultancy, scholarships etc.For the EPP family, Christians and secular liberals are the right priority partners inthis context. Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood should be engaged in dialogue, Roland Freudenstein – Deputy Director, Head of Research firstname.lastname@example.org Phone:+32 2 300 80 17, Mobile: +32 473 482 527 20, rue du commerce, B-1000 Bruxelles www.thinkingeurope.eu
–2–but they are not partners for cooperation if we want to stick to our values andremain credible in the eyes of those partners who share these values. 1. The historical significanceThe deeper historical significance of all this will of course depend on the finaloutcome which may only be visible in months or years. One thing is clear: The MiddleEast will not go back to the seemingly stable but (as we now know) unsustainable‘calm’ of the authoritarian regimes of recent decades. Local differences aside, theregion could float towards Islamism and thereby increase its distance from the West,it could go through a prolonged period of unrest, crisis and violence (spurring furtherwaves of refugees), or it could manage a fairly successful transition to more opensocieties.There are three primary reasons why this is not like ‘89: • In 1989, the incumbent regimes were based on one ideology (in fact, even dependent on one single superpower) whereas the Middle Eastern regimes of 2011 are/were anything from corrupt/Western leaning (Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain), Baathist (Syria), Islamist/Khomeinist (Iran) or sui generis (Libya, Algeria). • In 1989, Central Europeans had a rather clear picture of what kind of society they wanted: The Western European market-oriented democracies were the model – maybe not always in their lifestyles, but certainly in their constitutional order. In 2011, the plethora of opposition movements can agree on the abstract demand for more freedom and less poverty, but no concrete socio- political model is consensual among them. They seem much less political than Central European opposition movements in 1989. • In 1989 the spectrum of political options was, by and large, two-dimensional: From the incumbent regimes via moderate to hard-line opposition. Even the most conservative opposition (such as Poland’s national catholic extreme right) was not anti-Western in the same sense as the Muslim Brotherhood. In the Middle East, there is (and has been for decades) a triangular structure: Mostly secular regimes, secular/liberal opposition, and Islamist opposition. The latter two have in most cases ganged up against the former, but that is bound to change.At the same time, it would be difficult to draw substantial parallels to 1979: • Neither the mass mobilisation of religious fundamentalists, nor the early appearance of a messianic, undisputed leader like Ayatollah Khomeini, both of which were such stunning features of the Iranian revolution, have so far been visible in any MENA country. That does not mean that Islamists will not exploit the situation. They did play a crucial role in Egypt, helping to organise the protests at a critical moment before Mubarak’s downfall. But the creation of another Islamic Republic along Iranian lines is rather improbable in the near
–3– future, anywhere in the region, because a certain moderate secularism seems to be spreading. In fact, the revolts of 2011 may have given an additional boost to the eventual demise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. • The most dynamic element of most MENA societies, and therefore the cutting edge of the revolts, are young, urban, secular, educated men and women who do not have much desire for Islamism. They are driven as much by the lack of economic prospects as by the oppression they are facing from stagnant authoritarian regimes. The entire revolt has very strong demographic overtones, of young vs. old, and Islamism, having been around for so long, may actually turn out to belong to the old.Therefore, it seems this revolt probably bears stronger elements of ’68 than of ’89 or‘79, although the one important parallel to both ’89 and ’79 is that in many cases,2011 will eventually end up in regime change - all of which means that all pastexperiences with major revolutions are only partly applicable here. 2. Has the West ‘lost’ the Middle East?The revolt in the Middle East was no direct result of Western policies. It was certainlynot the work of American or German political foundations. And at least in thosecountries that have or had Western-leaning autocrats, the West looks guilty byassociation; its endorsement for the uprisings came late and hesitantly. Within theWest, there was a discernible difference between the US and the EU: In the Tunisianand Egyptian revolts, Secretary Clinton and President Obama reacted relativelyforcefully, calling for a transition to democracy and, at the end, openly for Mubarak’sresignation. The EU seemed to wake up much later, and was duly moreembarrassed through the close personal relations of some of its governments tosome North African leaders (Italy – Libya; France – Tunisia and Egypt). TheEuropean External Action Service was severely criticised for its sluggish reactions.But even though, and maybe just because, these revolts are home-made, the Westhas every reason to be proud: The ideals of human rights and multi-party democracythat are at the top of the young protesters’ priority list, are the very ideals that weconsider universal but that were first discovered in the West. The fact that most of theautocrats were supported by the West over the past three decades may make forcomplex relations with any future democratically elected government in the region.But Europe and America have a chance to partly make up for this, through speedyand active support for the transition. Direct financial transfers will play a role, butprobably not the decisive one. Accompanying the transition through transfers ofknow-how on good governance and democratic process may be more important.Opening the EU’s markets to agricultural and other products from the MENA regionwill be another element.
–4–In Europe’s case, this will be particularly relevant for the entire EuropeanNeighbourhood Policy (ENP), including the Eastern Partnership (which had alreadybeen in rough waters due to a general feeling of stagnation and the crackdown inBelarus in December 2010) and the Union of the Mediterranean. A general overhaulof the EU’s neighbourhood strategies and instruments is needed. More substantialoffers of political and economic cooperation and trade must be tied to much improvedconditionality. Having said that, the EU needs to consider that the new democrats inEgypt, Tunisia and other countries expect the EU not to be tougher on them than onthe old authoritarian regimes. This will turn out to be a formidable policy dilemmawhich can only be solved through very complex diplomatic fine-tuning.This overall effort is all the more necessary since even from Tunisia, where regimechange happened relatively peacefully, waves of illegal migrants are heading for theEU, not to mention actual or potential civil war situations like Libya. Helping toimprove the situation in the countries of origin, and thereby giving would-be refugeesgreater prospects, will be a decisive factor in preventing, or at least reducing, a massexodus. Promoting ‘circular migration’ through access to educational opportunities(special visas and scholarships) will have to become a priority. 3. Who’s next?Libya has descended into civil war, the outcome of which is unpredictable. The fourcountries currently considered most likely to develop revolts along Egyptian andTunisian lines are Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and possibly Iran. Egypt is not only themost populous Arab nation, its nationals were also considered slightly backward,which is why it has become almost a matter of pride for young urban Arabs not to beseen lagging too far behind. In all four countries named above, the authorities havereacted with more or less severe crackdowns on largely peaceful demonstrations. Infact, not only protesters but also authoritarian regimes have shown amazing ‘learningcurves’. In some cases a strategy alternating between violent crackdowns by policeand the military, partial compromise to meet some of the protesters’ demands,shutting down internet and phone services, and mobilising regime supporters, seemsto have helped to stave off regime change at least temporarily.In Libya, under the brutal and eccentric four-decade rule of the Khaddafi clan, thesituation differs markedly from both Tunisia and Egypt. Besides some youthfulprotest with political and economic motives, it seems to be several Bedouin clans’shift of loyalty away from Khaddafi that has led to civil war. It is impossible to judgethe situation there at the moment, but Libya has so far clearly seen the most violentvariant of revolts, which is probably not typical of the region as a whole.While most Gulf states (with the exception of Bahrain where a Shia majority is ruledby a Sunni royal family) seem stable at the moment, their leaders are increasinglyjittery. One important difference from Tunisia and Egypt is that in the Gulfmonarchies, governments were able to successfully deliver services to their citizenswith fairly good governance, based on resource wealth, while avoiding the rampant
–5–corruption existing in other MENA autocracies. But even Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabirulers are nervous in light of some youthful internet-based protest.Algeria has had its share of youthful protests in recent weeks, but the fresh memoryof the de facto civil war during the 1990s, with about 100,000 deaths, is clearly adampening factor on any revolutionary scenario. Morocco seems relatively stablebecause the royal family is entrenched, but in both countries some reforms to meetthe demands of protesters could be imminent. In Jordan, the royal family seems tohave ridden out the first wave of protests, but more unrest may follow soon. 4. Egypt: transition aheadEgypt has a pivotal position in the New Middle East. Just as Hosni Mubarak’sdeparture gave an even bigger boost than Ben-Ali’s demise to protesters in otherMENA countries, the further development of the post-Mubarak transition in Egypt willhave an important influence on possible other transitions in the region.Contrary to Tunisia, where the protests were originally social and economic and laterbecame political, Egypt’s protests began with a youthful, internet-based outcryagainst police violence and torture, and later combined with demands for higher payand lower food prices. The root causes of this revolt were: demographic, political andeconomic, in that order. Between the first massive occupation of Tahrir Square on 28January and the resignation of Hosni Mubarak on 10 February, it took the plethora ofold and new opposition groups some time to agree on one single demand: ‘Mubarakmust go!’ Having achieved this, the opposition is again splitting up into differentfactions with sometimes very contradictory goals for the future of Egypt. Whateveryone can still agree on is accountable government and pluralist democracy –everything else will be subject to intense debate in the months and years to come.The Egyptian military has always enjoyed an enormously privileged position in stateand society, and its Supreme Military Council under Defence Minister Field MarshalHussein Tantawi, having practically ousted the Mubarak family on 10 February, hasnow created a council to work out a new constitution which may be subject to areferendum in late summer. Presidential elections are to follow in September,parliamentary elections at an unspecified later date. After initial consultations withopposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the military put Prof.Tariq al-Bishri in charge of the Constitutional Council. Al-Bishri is close to the MBand it is widely assumed that he will reinforce the already strong Islamist base of theConstitution.The following political parties and groups seem relevant to the transition and in futureelection campaigns: a. Partners for cooperation: • The up to 14 million strong Copt Christian community, which still faces enormous de facto discrimination, is bound to form a political party that may
–6– become an important interlocutor and partner for the EPP family, being the Egyptian version of Christian Democrats. • The technology-savvy young bloggers and activists around Google executive Wael Ghoneim and Ahmed Mahir may yet form durable parties or NGOs with political relevance. These will be interesting potential partners for the EPP. b. Parties whose further development should be closely observed for possible cooperation in the future: • The New Wafd Party under the leadership of the entrepreneur El-Sayyid el- Badawi, the oldest and strongest of the secular parties. Legal under Mubarak but always in the opposition and representing moderate nationalism and economic liberalism, it is sure to play a role in a future Egyptian democracy. • The National Association for Change is a loose coalition around Mohamad El Baradei which may split up and join other forces. El Baradei is not considered a strong candidate for President because he is perceived as too hesitant and has not been sufficiently present in Egypt in recent years. c. Parties to be recommended for contacts but not for cooperation: • The now collapsed National Democratic Party that was the pillar of the Mubarak regime, may very well regroup and become a serious contender in future elections, representing the ancien regime and its beneficiaries – hardly suitable for partnership with the EPP. • The leftist National Progressive Unionist Party and the Nasserist-socialist Arab Democratic Nasserist Party which may merge into a Nasserist bloc, set to garner a sizeable share of the vote in future elections, but they hardly come into play as partners for the EPP. • The Muslim Brotherhood under Supreme Leader Mohamad Badia, arguably the best organised political party in Egypt today, is estimated at 20-30% of the popular vote in free elections. It is not a partner for cooperation with the EPP family (see point 5).A person to watch is Amr Mussa, the current Secretary General of the Arab Leagueand former Egyptian Foreign Minister. He is currently considered the most crediblecandidate for becoming the next President in the elections promised for September,and may be supported by several of the groups and parties mentioned above. 5. Waltzing with the BrotherhoodOne of the mantras of the current debate is that the West has relied on the falsestability of secular regimes for far too long, out of misguided fear of Islamism and,
–7–more specifically, of the MB, which is called MB only in Egypt and has differentnames in all other countries. According to that view, some of the MB offshoots havelong ago renounced violence, accepted the democratic process and have thereforebecome sufficiently moderate to be considered partners for dialogue andcooperation. Moreover, it is often argued that Middle Eastern societies are moredeeply religious than Western societies, which is why a much stronger role forreligion in public life and in state structures is inevitable, if not desirable, as aprecondition for sustainable democracy to take hold. In this perspective, more or lessWestern-minded liberals are marginal elements incapable of mobilizing the ‘Arabstreet’, and out of tune with the mainstream of their societies. At the core of thisperspective is a kind of culturalist world view similar to the one that, for decades,claimed Arab societies were generally unsuited for democracy and would never riseup against their authoritarian oppressors. But the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts haveshown that this kind of culturalism is unfounded.If we are serious in claiming that democracy and human rights are the core of aglobally applicable set of universal values that were first discovered in the West, wecannot make culturalist exceptions. This concerns, for example, the equality of menand women before the law and the freedom of religion, including the right to non-religion or to conversion, as well as checks and balances and the separation of statestructures and religious communities.It is true that the MB has come a long way from its clearly pro-fascist roots of the1920s and 1930s via the advocacy of terrorism in the 1950s and 1960s to therejection of violence in Egypt and the acceptance of democracy in recent decades.The problem lies in the definition of the term democracy. The MB in Egypt has, in itsdraft platform of 2007, drawn clear lines of separation vis-a-vis our concept of humanrights and democracy: • Any democratically elected parliament must be complemented by a shura council that checks all legislation against the sharia and can veto such legislation in case of incompatibility. The shura is an institution controlled by clergy and beyond democratic checks and balances, along the lines of Iran’s Council of Guardians. • The sharia is the basis for the Constitution and all further legislation and, since it is the word of God, its role as the source of secular law is immutable by whatever democratic majority. • Men and women are judged ‘equal in their dignity’, but women should not be ‘burdened with duties against their nature or role in the family’. That also means certain high offices of state are not open to women (or to disbelievers, for that matter).All these points are, of course, to an extent open to interpretation and fine-tuning.The draft platform was criticised by reformers inside the MB and it was shelved forthe time being. But internal gains by the conservatives in the past three years and theelection of Mohamed Badia as Supreme Guide hint that the draft reflects the
–8–dominant position within the MB. On the other hand, it may turn out that the MBwould not make these points preconditions for a participation in government. In anyevent, the MB is unlikely to give up its unequivocal support of Hamas, its Palestinianoffshoot, and what it terms the ‘legitimate resistance against the Zionist occupation’ –the latter formula meaning the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, not just theoccupation of the West Bank. The rejection of violence by the MB thus refers to aspecific constellation in Egypt itself and is to be seen in very relative terms.The MB is certainly a force to be reckoned with, at least in Egypt and most likely insome other countries of the New Middle East. What is particularly remarkable, andexplains much of their societal support, is their charity and welfare work, often withdonations from oil-rich Gulf states or Saudi-Arabia. A possible future scenario is thatthe MB actually formally splits along reformist/conservative lines over programmaticdifferences highlighted by running in a free election. But all of the above should beclear signals for the EPP family vis-à-vis today’s MB to draw a distinct line betweendialogue, which is necessary, and cooperation, which should be avoided unless theMB makes substantial changes in its platform. Cooperation should also be avoided inorder to reassure those Arabs who accept universal human rights and unequivocallyshare the values by which the West seeks to live.In any case, the MB may well be past its prime, both in Egypt and elsewhere in theNew Middle East. It did not initiate this revolt, and in fact stayed on the sidelines for aconspicuously long time. When it joined, it helped through its structures andorganisational strength, but the dynamics of the revolt were anything but Islamist. Infact, one of the initial slogans of the Egyptian opposition movement around TahrirSquare was ‘Tunisia is the solution!’ – a rather sarcastic allusion to the MB’s eternalmotto ‘Islam is the solution!’. Egypt’s youthful protesters are enormously proud that,in the ouster of the Mubarak clan, they have achieved in 3 weeks what theBrotherhood has not managed in decades of half-clandestine opposition work,(although without the MB, the protests might not have been successful so quickly).Nevertheless, the MB in some aspects may yet come to resemble the Bolsheviks inTsarist Russia by grabbing power following initial revolutionary turmoil. It is clear theyare following a very long term approach. In a future government coalition, they maywell aim for ministries like education and social affairs, but certainly not defence orforeign affairs. In any case, they have been waiting for freedom of action for eightdecades. They may as well wait a few more years for victory. 6. Israel: Growing insecurityIsrael was, maybe more drastically than all others, surprised by the Middle Easternrevolts. The initial reaction of Prime Minister Netanyahu was more than unfortunate:Seeing that Israeli-Egyptian relations had never been as peaceful as since the CampDavid Accord of 1979, Netanyahu seemed to urge US and European leaders to helpMubarak stay in power. He quickly saw what a devastating effect this move had onIsrael’s image (and how fruitless it was, as well) and shifted his position in a speechto the Knesset a week after the initial protests of 28 January, in which he fully
–9–supported the democracy movement while still expressing worries about a potential“Iranian scenario” for Egypt.Both the Right and the Left in Israel feel corroborated in their attitude to the PeaceProcess for the moment: While the latter (e.g. former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni)believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians should have already been struck in2008 and now is the last possible moment to do so, the former think that now is theworst moment for compromise because Israel would act under pressure and that oneshould definitely wait for further developments.Israel’s strategic posture will indeed be dramatically affected by the change in theMiddle East, especially in Egypt (and potentially Jordan). Thanks to the peacetreaties with these countries in 1979 and 1994, respectively, Israel has been able tofocus its military efforts largely on confronting Hezbollah and Hamas, to concentrateon securing the West Bank and to reduce overall military spending from 27% of GDPin the early 1980s to 7% today, thereby giving a considerable boost to the economy.Whatever the outcome of the current revolts, Israel will have to prepare at least forthe - however remote - possibility of large scale conventional wars to the south andeast once again. This will inevitably drain resources and make Israel’s currentlyrobust economy much more fragile. What is just as ominous is the fact that Israelreceives 40% of its energy from gas imports, half of which are from Egypt. FutureEgyptian governments may want to renegotiate the terms of that deal, or they mayeven threaten to use energy as a weapon against Israel.Militarily, the possible enhancement of Iran’s position (barring a full scale revolt andregime change in Iran itself) in the region, and as a sponsor to Hamas andHezbollah, will make things more difficult for Israel anyway. Iran’s sending warshipsthrough the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979 was a test balloon concerningthe Egyptian military and a clear and intentional provocation of Israel.In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has always openly demanded an abrogation of the1979 peace treaty with Israel. In a future government constellation, they may refrainfrom making this an immediate condition, but criticism of the agreement goes farbeyond the MB. Mohamad El Baradei, in a telling statement shortly after the initialrevolt of 28 January, has emphasised that of course Egypt should in future stick tothe treaty – provided that Israel sticks to its obligations made in the treaty vis-à-visthe Palestinians. This is the snag: Since that clause is open to interpretation, andsince between Israel and the PA it takes two to tango, not to mention Hamas’unwillingness to recognise Israel at all, El Baradei’s logic opens up the possibility ofputting the treaty in doubt on the grounds that Israel has not fulfilled its obligations.Israel will need much reassurance in the upcoming weeks and months. One thingthat has become clear in these revolts is that the stagnating Israel/Palestine peaceprocess is not the central problem of the Middle East, but rather autocracy and lackof good governance. For both reasons, this is not the time to put additional pressureon Israel to compromise on questions it sees as crucial for its security and existenceas the State of the Jewish People. But Israel’s friends and partners should definitelyurge its government to seize the opportunity to reach out to the New Middle East’sdemocrats and budding civil societies.
– 10 – 7. Turkey: The winner?Turkey stands to gain much from the new situation. It is brimming with confidenceregarding the New Middle East. Its image of a modern, prospering democracy ruledby moderate Islamists may indeed become a kind of model for the region,overcoming the traditional distance Arabs have felt for a long time with Turks.Certainly, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is by far preferable toIslamists like the MB. But in foreign policy, the AKP’s recent moves to developfriendly ties with Iran, turn away from Israel and openly side with Hamas (even at theexpense of the Palestinian Authority) in a seemingly neo-Ottoman pattern have givenrise to questions whether Turkey under the AKP is still a pro-Western country in theway it used to be. In a more democratic Middle East, Turkey and the AKP might notonly become a model as far as Islam and politics are concerned, but some fear that itmight also turn into the diplomatic, economic and political hub of a group of countriesmore hostile to Israel and the West, and friendly to the axis Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas. Such a scenario is not in the interest of Europe or the US.An example of the AKP’s repositioning is PM Erdogan’s commentary on thedevelopments in Egypt and Iran in recent weeks: In Egypt, he openly called forMubarak’s departure and for democratic elections in Egypt, whereas the renewedbrutal suppression of the Green Movement by the Iranian government was not evenmentioned and seems to have done no harm at all to Turkey’s friendly ties withPresident Ahmadinejad. In that sense, one may wonder whether Turkey under theAKP is a recommendable ‘model’, or maybe rather a regional competitor to the West.That should not keep us from trying to re-engage with Turkey using bilateralrelations, the EU and NATO. But one of the goals of this re-engagement should be achange in Ankara’s pro-Iranian and pro-Hamas posture. 8. Conclusions • The revolutionary change that is transforming the landscape of the New Middle East presents us with both significant dangers and opportunities. They are too important to be missed, and have to be addressed by the EU and its driving force, the EPP family. • Beyond immediate crisis management vis-à-vis emergencies like the Libyan civil war, the EU has to overhaul its entire European Neighbourhood Policy by making it more political, strengthen conditionality, open EU markets and upgrade its offer of knowledge transfer regarding good governance and modernisation. The reward will be a freer and more secure Middle East. Reassuring Israel in a moment of insecurity, and re-engaging a Turkey which may become more distant to the West, are other urgent tasks for the EU’s
– 11 – policy in the region. All this should be done in close cooperation with the United States.• As new multi-party democracies emerge, the EPP family will have to develop new contacts to parties and NGOs. There should be a clear distinction between partners for dialogue (all groups accepting democracy and rejecting violence) and partners for cooperation (who share our fundamental views on modern society, democracy and human rights).• With the latter group, the EPP family should develop formal ties, possibly also within larger frameworks like the Centrist Democrat International and the International Democratic Union. In Egypt, a future party by the Copts and secular/liberal organisations of the youthful protesters may belong to that group. The Muslim Brotherhood does not.• All EPP-related NGOs and foundations dealing with democracy promotion and civil society building should urgently intensify their efforts in the MENA region. In upcoming free elections, the training, consulting and scholarships that these institutions can offer, can play an important role. These efforts should be coordinated on the European level between different national actors.