Op-Ed: Besides economics, the EU must help Arab democracy

By Alvaro Vasconcelos

The Daily Star
Monday, September 05, 2005

As the debate on political reform in the Arab world gains increasing momentum, the European Union has been forced to rethink the basic elements of its policy toward the region. Since the 1980s, the EU's approach has been based on a conviction that the fundamental problems of the region were economic and social. Those problems were fuelling radical Islamic movements, perceived as the greatest threat to local regimes and, in the longer run, as a challenge to EU member states as well. It was on this basis that many in the EU developed a policy of economics first, assuming that economic and social development would bring security, isolate the Islamists, and in the long term promote democracy, the ultimate goal of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership as stated in the 1995 Barcelona Declaration.

Ten years after the launching of the partnership, the EuroMeSCo Report concludes that this sequence of economic reform leading to democratization has not worked in the Mediterranean region. Some of the countries that witnessed stronger economic growth were the same ones where political reform was weaker, and vice versa. Meanwhile, political Islam, in its many variants across the region, became an unavoidable issue. Therefore, the EU is now faced with the need to engage its partners in the South in a process that will give priority to the political issues, while at the same time developing an effective policy of economic inclusion. In other words, the union must now develop a comprehensive policy toward the region based on the democratic principles of the Barcelona Declaration.

A renewed partnership requires rethinking existing economic and financial instruments. It also requires a change of attitude toward political Islam, which in the past was used as an excuse to avoid dealing with democratic reform and was partially responsible for a policy of support for the status quo in the name of stability. The "trap of the status quo" was one of the problems the Bush administration identified after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, even if it has not always translated its conclusion into the best policy options.

There is a key point that must be remembered if EU policies and those of its partners are to succeed at all: September 11 did not change the attitude of Arab democrats. Local pro-reform and-or pro-democracy activists were not born after September 11, nor are they a product of American policies; what September 11 did change - albeit timidly - was American and European views on democracy in the Arab world. The external debate regarding support for political change in the region must be based on the recognition that there is an intense debate on democracy and reform within most Arab countries; that there is a plurality of local political groups pressing for change; and that governments, be they reformist or not, are far from being the only political force to be contended with.

However, European governments remain unclear about preferred local partners and ultimate goals. So it is still arguable, even with increasing conviction, that current regimes are preferable to a democratization that might lead to Islamist political victories. And for the same reasons the argument is made that external actors should support reformists from within the regime that seek to consolidate a form of liberal authoritarianism rather than back democrats that pursue outright democratization.

Establishing relations with opposition forces, including moderate Islamic groups, is a recognized necessity. In many countries the Islamists are the only opposition force with clear popular support, which is essential to any process of transition to democracy. However, Europeans have not yet fully recognized this fact. Indeed, many secular Arab groups are similarly ambiguous, as they view Islamist groups with mistrust. To clarify this question, it is necessary for external actors to commit clearly to democratization. This is an essential step, not least because liberalizing authoritarianism is inherently unstable and, moreover, not a proven bulwark against the totalitarian elements within radical Islamism.

Forging links with pro-democracy groups is not incompatible with maintaining relations with governments and supporting official political and economic reform. Indeed, the challenge is to combine support for reform processes "from above" with backing for political movements pressing for democratic change "from below," such that liberalizing authoritarianism becomes not an end in itself but a stepping stone toward full democratization.

The challenge also lies in recognizing that each country is unique and that a "one size fits all" approach makes no sense in a region as vast and diverse as that stretching from Rabat to Riyadh. However, this does not preclude the EU from making democratization an explicit aim of the 10-year-old Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The European experience shows that the combination of an economic inclusion policy with the setting of a common goal and clear criteria to attain it generates a powerful incentive for reform and democratic transition.

The case of Turkey is particularly relevant here, as the Islamist Development and Justice Party has played a leading role in that country's transition, as well as in the Turkish commitment to fulfill the necessary economic and political criteria for EU accession. Morocco, where a significant process of political reform is already under way, could follow a similar path; an Islamic party is also participating in that country's transitional reform process. However, the Moroccan case also shows that without a political strategy that deals with the country's economic and social problems, namely unemployment, public support for democratic forces could wane rapidly. Financial support and the opening of EU markets, as in the case of Turkey, are thus absolutely essential.

Turkey and to a certain extent Morocco provide an encouraging contrast to Iraq and the failure of "democratic interventionism." So it is of the essence that the EU recognize the role of Arab pro-democracy actors of all stripes. The EU must select its official and non-governmental partners on the basis of an explicit commitment to a process of democratic change that vindicates the already proven case-sensitive policy of economic and political inclusion based on the goal of pre-defined democratic and human rights.

Alvaro Vasconcelos is director of IEEI, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, in Lisbon. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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