February 4, 2011
The recent uprisings in the Maghreb region have exposed the double standards with which Europeans apply “universal values”. We are happy to talk ad nauseum about our own popular movements that brought our peoples out from under the yoke of dictatorship, poverty and oppression. Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa reflect the asymmetry and inequality that goes hand in hand with the denial of civil, social and political rights. The citizens of these countries are correct to demand that they should no longer be faced with autocratic government. They should be entitled to expect that their neighbours in Europe would give them the support they deserve. But even if they did call to Europe, how would it answer?
In the past, European leaders have defended their cooperation with the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali with only the weakest of justifications. They invoke such concepts as “realpolitik” and “stability” to support a lower standard of political life in the EU’s southern neighbourhood. The threat of the emergence of Islamist regimes is regularly raised as people think back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. So the Maghreb region misses its opportunity for democracy in the interest of “global security”.
Yet the last few years have shown us that dictatorship is no guarantor of stability. Under oppressive regimes, people of the Maghreb suffered food shortages due to commodity speculation and the social turmoil that goes with this. It is doubtful that anyone in the region feels safer under these regimes and it is ludicrous that Europeans should feel safer with dictators on our doorstep. A notable occurrence in recent days has been the secular nature of these uprisings. It was a powerful image to see Egyptian Muslims kneel for evening prayers while their Christian compatriots surrounded them with linked arms to protect them from the police.
Therefore, Europe must wake up and support the same standards for the people of North Africa as we demand for ourselves. We are faced with a new global setting and should adopt a new progressive paradigm in response.
When the European communist regimes fell to popular revolutions in 1989, similar arguments were made about the danger to “stability” as Eastern Europeans demanded something better than the totalitarian state. It seems global security was also in mortal danger back then too but who would now go back to the situation that existed in Cold War Europe? It takes people of courage to take a leap of faith. Willy Brandt advocated change through common effort and offered solidarity to Germany’s eastern neighbours. This kind of perspective is now lacking in our dealings with our Maghreb neighbours. “Realpolitik” dictates that it is “normal” to deal with dictators. It is “normal” for the US government to donate $1.3bn per year to the Egyptian military. It is “normal” for us not to question this.
Let us now move beyond what is “normal”. Europe must be absolutely clear where we stand on values of democracy and popular government and this must be reflected in our diplomacy. Nicolas Sarkozy built the Union for the Mediterranean with significant cooperation from Mubarak and Ben Ali. In trying to avoid the awkward implications of this, the French President now says he supports the position of the Obama Administration, whatever that is. It is notable that, like in the Cold War, the lead in foreign policy comes from the US. Little has been done by way of building a common EU perspective or drive for action. We need to face up to these realities in other parts of the world too, to change the conception of realpolitik from one of cynicism to one of progress. Otherwise, the peoples of the Maghreb region will not see the need to call to Europe and they would be right.Ernst Stetter