The first day of the two day conference on “Europe’s Southern Neighbourhood” organised by Carnegie Europe, in collaboration with Egmont, the European Parliament and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, tackled the issue of the emergence of ‘Muslim democracy’. The second day of the conference focused on Players, Plans and Positions. Pursuing on the line of open dialogue across the political spectrum of some MENA countries and across the main players of the region, the panels engaged on the Social and Economic Dimensions of Transition, on the Role of Regional Powers (Turkey, Iran, Israel) and on Future Perspectives and Challenges of European-Arab Relations.
Economic and Social Issues
The importance of socioeconomic factors for the emergence of the revolts in 2011 was constantly highlighted by panellists from Tunisia, Egypt and Syria and their role remains crucial in the transitional period. While aspirations for more inclusion and freedoms were part of the equation, socioeconomic factors played a leading role. Rather than talking about strive towards democratisation like his Tunisian and Syrian counterparts, Tamer Meky, Member of the Shura Council from the Asala Salafi Party of Egypt, talked about demands for human dignity. Whereas there is convergence on the fact that the Arab Spring was depicted in a distorted way by Western media, Mr. Meky argued that wrong perceptions and stereotypes have dominated the media during the transition period, especially with regard to the political ends and ambitions of Islamist parties. Jihad Zayigi on the other hand, speaking about Syria, underlined the existing gap between protestors’ demands and the political agendas of rising Islamist parties which do not address these demands.
The Role of Regional Powers: Turkey, Israel, Iran
How to effectively engage with the new players of the MENA region? This was one of the issues raised by the panel. Ambassador Shimon Stein commented that Israel had not really been engaging with the new players, as the influx of the current unstable situation renders any decision of strategic importance extremely risky. He noted that the Arab awakening had propelled new actors to the forefront of the Middle East; whereas Egypt, Syria and Iraq used to play a prominent role amongst Arab nations, they are increasingly overshadowed by regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Kayhan Barzegar underscored that although Iran was very supportive of the Arab awakening, it grew increasingly away from the revolution due to the important geopolitical dimensions that the Syrian conflict has on the region. If political solution is the answer to the deadlock, Mr. Barzegar wondered what sort of political solution would be efficient. He warned Europeans against the connection they make between the Syrian crisis and the Iranian regime change, fuelling divisions and isolating Iran from the process; he considers that Iran has a role to play in the resolution of the situation.
New Partnership: Future Perspectives and Challenges of European-Arab relations
Rima Maktabi, Anchor and Senior Roving Correspondent with Al Arabiya, gave an interesting account of the situation on the ground in Syria. Although working in the media, she recognised that problems were created by the way media reported on the Arab Spring and the transition, and the fallacies it has perpetrated. On his part, Amr Hamzawy listed four challenges ahead of the EU: firstly, Europeans should avoid limiting their understanding of the Arab world to Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. Secondly, the EU should seek to build relations with new actors in the region, and should not limit itself to political actors. Thirdly, Europe should keep doing what has traditionally been done well towards the Arab world, both at the EU supranational level, but also by Member States (issues pertaining to Human Rights, religious freedoms). Finally, the EU should work together with the MENA countries to redefine security issues such as migration, violence, social explosion, or unemployment and on means to tackle them. Amr Hamzawy had four recommendations for the Arab world: firstly, transcending the autocratic lens is a fundamental challenge. Secondly, he argued that these countries should seek to find ways to move beyond economic and trade issues in their relations to the EU. Thirdly, they will need to find actors who can engage with and be understood by Europe. Fourthly, security issues should be discussed on a partnership basis rather than on a provider/recipient relationship such as the one of the past decade.
Active engagement is what remains to the EU. As argued by Christian Berger, EEAS, the EU needs a differentiated approach based on a review of assistance and of the 3Ms (Market, Mobility, Money). It should not only develop ties with the countries of the region but with the region as a whole, with the League of Arab States and with the Union for the Mediterranean. Wondering if the EU can be seen as an important actor by the states of the region is irrelevant; the real question is whether the EU’s and these states’ interests converge. A pragmatic partnership is needed, based on realism and agency, and not on idealism. Amr Hamzawy concluded on three fundamentals: governance, accountability, transparency. The EU should sustain the MENA countries, while trying to understand them better. For that goal to be achieved, only regular dialogue and adequate platforms of communication and cooperation will produce effective change.
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