The Arab Spring held so much promise. However, five years after the wave of protests and revolutions that swept North Africa and the Middle East, much of that promise looks unfulfilled. Tunisia is widely regarded as a success story, having adopted a new constitution and held free elections in 2014. However, Libya descended into civil war, Morocco and Algeria are both considered by observers to be authoritarian regimes, and Egypt suffered a military coup in 2013 leading to “the most repressive regime in Egypt’s modern history”.
Instability in North Africa has consequences for neighbouring regions, including Europe. Violence in Libya (and the political vacuum allowing smugglers to operate unimpeded) has been one of the driving forces behind the current refugee crisis. In addition, Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State have been working to establish strongholds in North Africa, potentially using them as bases to recruit, train, plan, and launch attacks.
Logically, bringing peace and stability to its southern neighbourhood should be a top European priority. But can peace and stability be achieved whilst at the same time promoting democratisation? Is it better for Europe to ignore human rights abuses, and focus on trade, investment, job creation, and education? On the other hand, can sustainable peace exist without democracy?
On 1 June 2016, Debating Europe attended an event held in Brussels by our partner think tank, Friends of Europe. The event brought together policymakers and experts from across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, looking at ways to promote democracy, stability, prosperity, and peace. We put some of your questions to the speakers at this event.
We had a comment from Anne, who argued that the promise of the Arab Spring has gone unfulfilled in North Africa. If Anne is right, what would be the most effective way to guarantee peace and security in North Africa and the Middle East? And what part can Europe play in that?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Ahmed Galal, Egypt’s former Finance Minister (2013-2014), and currently Managing Director of the Economic Research Forum (ERF).
Conflicts in the region have different causes. The problem in Israel-Palestine is one problem, the problem in Iraq is a different problem, the problem in Libya is different, and in Syria, and so on. Therefore, the solution to these problems has to be tailored to the root causes of the problem in that particular country.
For example, I think the Palestinian-Israeli problem has lived on for too long. It’s the only country that’s formally occupied in the world right now. I think it’s an apartheid system. I think Israel has the right to exist, yes, but the Palestinians have the right to co-exist as well…
As another example, the problem in Libya is that Qaddafi was a terrible dictator, but the West left a vacuum when it got rid of him. Libya doesn’t have institutions, doesn’t have the army, it is ethnically divided, so you have multiple countries in one country…
So, these are two examples. The way to resolve these problems will differ. And the role of the EU will differ. And in some cases they will have an important role to play, and in some cases they really won’t…
For another perspective, we spoke to Alexander De Croo, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation. How would he respond to Anne?
The first question is should we play a role? Yes, it’s our backyard and it would be illogical not do so. So, what is the most effective way to play a role? It’s a combination of two things: First, it’s an emphasis on human rights, and really always bringing that to the table. Second, the most powerful vector of development and democracy is economic growth.
When people have economic prospects, it takes away the reason for violence and for not respecting human rights. So, investing, doing trade, and being an economic partner is one of the best things Europe can do. We have shown that again and again. We started with six European countries, we became twenty-eight, and this is the main reason why Eastern and Central Europe are more-or-less stabilised, because of economic growth and trade.
Finally, we put the same question to Sergio Piccolo, Adviser on the Southern European Neighbourhood Policy at the European Commission, Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. What would he say?
This is the most tricky issue. We have witnessed many wars over the last 20 or so years in the region, fortunately a bit less in the Maghreb region, but it’s really a difficult situation in the Middle East, and Libya included.
The EU is not the only actor in this region. Of course, we are the elephant in the room because we are in the Mediterranean. But you also have the US, the Arab League states, and major regional powers playing a role. In addition, sometimes EU Member States don’t have the same position on various issues.
So, it’s a really challenging puzzle that you have to solve in order to have peace and prosperity in the region. I think, sooner or later, we will reach that objective. But it’s extremely difficult, because we have to address many, many different layers and dimensions at the same time. So, any solution needs to involve domestic politics, political legitimacy, and also the different interests of many players around the region.
How can democracy be best promoted in North Africa? Would trade and investment help secure stability and prosperity? Or should the EU do more to promote democracy in the region? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!