9 March 2011
None of us really foresaw how quickly waves of change could alter the political landscape across the Middle East and North Africa – because most opinion makers were looking at the region through the lenses of security, Islamism, stability and migration. Yet, just like a good detective story, the clues of what was to happen were in front of us all the time.
Analysts and researchers observing the region – not to find answers to European and American questions but to understand where it was heading on its own terms – have long been pointing out the demographic and social trends. The growing youth population wanted change, democracy, equal opportunities and an end to corruption and nepotism. They were more interested in connecting with the rest of the world and feeling proud of their countries than joining backward Islamist utopias.
It was clear, if one really wanted to see it, that political Islam had evolved from merely wanting Sharia based isolationism into an attempt to reconcile Islamic faith and its principles with the realities of a global world. In fact, groups such as Al-Qaida and its myriad of local expressions emerged in reaction to this trend. Even then it was clear that the heyday of militant and anarchist groups was passing – though their capacity to cause harm was not. Militant Islamist groups were distant observers of the changes in the Middle East and North Africa, and could claim no victory or achievement in the toppling of rulers which they had been promising to dethrone for years. When the curtains came down, it became clear that while Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood remain political players not to be overlooked, they are a lot less grand than the bogey men they have been made out to be.
Even the governments that traditionally favour stability at the expense of freedoms as the better of evils – such as the United States – were acutely aware that the realpolitik dichotomy of stability versus chaos was only a myth. A quick internet search reveals statements by George Bush and Condoleezza Rice acknowledging that supporting tyrants for short term gains was counterproductive and the promotion of democracy and political freedom was the only guarantors of long term stability. Thus, even the fiercest critiques of Turkey's ruling conservative Muslim AKP have spoken of it as a model for the rest of Muslim world. Turkey, contrary to all of the scaremongering about an Islamist takeover, was being seen as a success story – a Muslim society that is democratic and cherishes an open market economy.
So, yes, hindsight is great. It comforts us by removing the shocking truth that we have been blind, we have pursued outdated and futile policies, and we have been on the wrong side of history. As European leaders compete against one another to make emotive statements praising the brave uprising of Arabs in feeble attempts to look like they have been with the common people of the region all along, they quickly forget – or wish that we forget – all of the murky connections they had with now out of fashion leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and their continued dealings with similarly shady governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
While we don't know what exactly the current changes in the region will mean in the long run, one thing is certain. The EU's problematic and fragmented engagement with the region is in shatters. Unless the EU develops a robust, unified and multi-layered and proactive foreign policy, it will continue to find itself excluded from brand new economic and political opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa. The EU no longer has to compete only with a strong American presence there, but also with the ever increasing diplomatic and economic clout of Turkey and Iran, as well as strong domestic public opinion and civil societies.
Can the EU achieve this and realise its potential as a stabilizing and influential force in the region? At the moment the answer is no. But then again, in the last two months we have learned how quickly stubborn old regimes can give way to liquid and energetic new ones. Who knows, maybe a European revolution is awaiting us around the corner.