Friday 18. September 2020
#137 - April 2011


The “Arab Spring”: what role can the European Union play?


A wave of unprecedented insurgency and revolution has swept across Arab countries since the start of this year. Will the dictatorships fall? Is the transition to democracy finally under way for these peoples, so desperate for freedom? What role can the EU play?


This is not the first time that the Arab countries have experienced popular unrest. These past three decades have from time to time been marked by ‘bread riots” mostly provoked during the 1980s by the austerity measures required to meet the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 2008 a large-scale general strike broke out in Egypt, sparked off by low salaries and the hike in food prices, leading to the birth of the “April 6 Youth Movement” organised through the Facebook social network. That same year, there was a major uprising in the Gafsa mining region, situated close to Sidi Bouzid, the place where the self-immolation of the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010 would unleash a wave of protests in the rest of the country before spreading to other Arab countries.


What is new in the present-day scenario is that the most recent rebellions have scaled up into revolutions, or at least into insurgencies with the aim of removing the dictators and toppling their regimes. As well as the cries of “Ben Ali out!” and “Mubarak out!” what else are the demonstrators shouting about? The banner being brandished by the Egyptian demonstrator in the photo opposite sums up a typical catalogue of their problems and complaints. “I want work, I want bread, I want security, I want to be able to get married” – this last refers to the late age for getting married due to the material difficulties that prevent people from setting up home together. “I want dignity (karâmeh)” – a word around which rebellions have materialised to attack the corrupt and kleptomaniac regimes oppressing their citizens.  “No to Mubarak! No to your son Gamal” (one of the ousted president’s sons) express the demand for regime change and the rejection of “hereditary republics”, like the Bachar Al-Assad dynasty in Syria. The citizens’ feeling of dispossession thunders out finally in the slogan “I want the right to my own country.”


Dictators have been ousted, but have their regimes fallen? We should not forget that these popular uprisings have also been military coups, at least in Egypt and Tunisia. Ben Ali and Mubarak were shoved in the back towards the exit by their own armies.    Monarchies seem to stand up to pressure better, but in Morocco and Jordan there have been calls for them to be made into constitutional monarchies – where the king reigns but does not govern. Whatever happens, the rebellions are taking place in countries with specific background histories, like that of Bahrain torn by the Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict, Libya torn by its inter-tribal and interregional divisions, and of course there is Yemen too. The direction that these processes of transition will take will therefore be decisive. Yet serious doubts can be cast on their outcome if we look back at the historical experience of political liberalisation which marked the end of the 1980-1990 decade in several Arab countries which then rapidly went backwards. To start with, there were openings for the opposition parties, especially Islamist, but later they became more tightly controlled, even wiped out. It is possible to argue, however, that a point of no return has now been passed and that there will soon be a “before” and an “after”, in particular due to generational change.


Generational change

Up to half of the population of Arab countries is made up of young people aged 20 and under. We have seen them demonstrating in various different rallies where diverse sections of society were represented. In Jordan, for example, the Jayeen movement (“We are coming”) is composed of a coalition of opposition parties of the secular Arab nationalist left, young people, students, dissatisfied officials, retired generals and ’civil society’ organisations, as well as of activists drawn from circles now being described in the region as the “new social movements”.


The Islamic opposition parties were obviously not the instigators of the various “Arab Springs”. Instead they jumped onto the bandwagon and the early demonstrators took great care to avoid having their uprisings hijacked. At first sight, these young people are far more involved in civil strife as part of ’civil society’ than as activists in a partisan-type combat. On the banner being brandished by the young Egyptian protester in the photo opposite you will see the emblem (a clenched fist) of the Serbian ‘Otpor’ (“Resistance”) movement which contributed to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and which spread to other countries, such as Ukraine with its “Orange Revolution”, using the model of non-violent action. What are the political inclinations of these Arab youth movements? How are they going to find political channels for their complaints? It seems fairly obvious that the Islamic opposition parties, which are the only significant organised bodies of opposition with large electorates (and which we are all hoping will develop into Islamic democracies along the lines of the AKP in Turkey), will win substantial shares of seats in the Parliaments if the rules of the electoral game are revised and the elections are free. All these factors will influence the regime changes which already appear to be forming on the horizon.


Will there be transition to democracy?

In several countries the process of introducing reforms has definitely started, though not without obstacles. In Egypt, a constitutional referendum has just been held in a strained political atmosphere that illustrates the interplay of current political forces. Intended to open up the way to legislative elections in September 2011, the referendum was supported by well organised political parties (basically the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling party) which have an interest in holding elections quickly, but this does not at all suit the political parties that are only now beginning to organise themselves and were also hoping for far deeper reforms. In Tunisia, a Higher Political Reform Committee has been set up with a mandate to achieve the objectives of the Revolution, political reform and transition to democracy, but its membership has been challenged. In Jordan, the King has changed his government and given the new one orders to set up a National Dialogue Committee designed to provide a platform for reforms that encourage partisan life and political pluralism, but the Islamic opposition is refusing to take part ...


What role can the European Union play?

Whatever the political developments, the thorny problems on the economic and social levels still need to be addressed, whether the situation be authoritarian or democratic, as we saw in Morocco after King Mohammed VI’s historic speech to his country on 9 March – it was strong on political reforms but ominously silent on socio-economic action.  In short, there is a whole range of challenges that the European Union has to address firmly in the framework of the “Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean” which the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs presented to the European Council and European Parliament on 8 March. This is based on three main pillars: support for democratic reforms and the fight against corruption; support for civil society and enlargement of possibilities for exchanges, especially for young people; stimulation of the economy in order to promote job creation. Going beyond the good intentions of the Euro-Med Partnership, one can only hope that the new partnership being proposed will come up to the standards of a veritable “Marshall Plan” for which the south shore of the Mediterranean is hanging on in hope.


Prof. Dr Vincent Legrand

Centre for Contemporary Arab World Studies and Research(CERMAC)

Catholic University of Louvain (UCL)


Translated from the Original French


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