BRUSSELS/CAIRO: The so-called “Arab Spring” caught many policymakers off guard; it was off the charts of many intelligence speculations and an embarrassment to states that had supported the toppled dictators. For Europe, there’s an added challenge to quickly reformulate its neighborhood policies to keep up with the changes in its backyard.
The geographic proximity is one of many factors that compelled the European Union to immediately respond with visible, speech-friendly changes. Following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which ousted long-time dictators in January and February respectively, diplomats raced to visit. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catharine Ashton was in Egypt in February. After Poland assumed the EU’s rotating presidency on July 1, José Manuel Durão Barroso, president of the European Commission, was in Cairo talking about a change two weeks later.
The visits and the speeches could be interpreted as a public relations stunt to make up for previous support for old regimes. But, understanding the changes on the ground was also on the agenda, as part of an attempt to patch together confusing and unidentifiable factors in hastened, yet more-informed, review of policies.
By May, the EU issued the review of its Neighborhood Policy, acknowledging changes in its East and South. It offered support, the loudest of which was financial. An additional €1.2 billion would be added to the €5.7 billion budgeted to the ENP over the next two years and €6 billion in loans would be available.
The essence, however, of how these funds would be employed remained pretty much the same.
Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, explained to Egyptian and Tunisian journalists last month that there are 20 new instruments of measuring progress. Money, mobility and market access will define the new strategy.
Explaining the changes, EU High Representative Spokesperson Michael Mann noted the support to civil society in Egypt and Tunisia. This was featured prominently in programs introduced through the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) before. Asked about the difference, Mann said, “Now we have an opportunity to do it properly.”
The same concept surfaced in other officials’ responses when quizzed about the degree of change, with words like “beefing up” featured in answers almost as frequently as the references to the additional funds to be pumped.
“If we take their statements at face value, the change is fundamental, comprehensive and long lasting. They will no longer be propping up dictators but would be supporting democracies … But if we dig a little deeper, six months after the initial upheavals, it becomes increasingly apparent that some things have changed but other things have not,” said Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), in reference to announced changes in the ENP.
The challenge in reshaping and then understanding the policies go beyond tangible instruments. Ambiguous strategies and goals, especially during the transition, dominate the diplomatic scene.
Charting the changes in policies in terms clearer than diplomatic lingo, along with the changing factors involved, is proving more challenging than navigating the confusing corridors of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
What’s in it for us?
The question of how the new programs and exchanges could effectively help growth, especially in the direction of democracy, is a difficult one to answer. Instead, other benchmarks are used to ensure that cooperation is moving in the right direction.
Conditionality was often brought up before as a defining point of previous European-Egyptian relations. The failure of this principle to bring a certain level of reform to Egypt or the region is often noted as well. Fule didn’t shy away from acknowledging the deficiency of the principal.
Two similar concepts were put on the table this year — perhaps a more attractive wording for the same concept: “more for more” and “mutual accountability.”
The “more for more” policy eliminates the element of punishment from relationships — meaning no allocated funds would be scrapped in response to setbacks in Egypt for example.
“The more the country embarks on demanding and painful reform across the spectrum of the life of the societies, the more we will support it,” Fule explained, noting that the other side of the policy is “less for less.”
Egypt was welcoming.
“The concept of more for more is a good concept. It means more advantages to the countries moving towards more reforms,” said Ashraf Hamdy, Egypt’s deputy assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for the European Union and Western Europe.
“However, the outcome of this ‘more for more’ isn’t clear for us. The endgame isn’t clear to us,” he added.
For countries where similar packages had helped bring sweeping reforms and better relations with EU, the endgame was Union membership, something that doesn’t apply to Egypt or Tunisia. Thus, the “painful reform” or its preferable fast pace doesn’t have a clear end-destination or even path.
Fule acknowledged the problem and made suggestions on what concrete terms the EU could provide to make the ENP more strategic to the non-EU partners. Gradual integration in European markets, he suggested, along with five benchmarks determining the progress and consequently the level of support.
These are free and fair elections; freedom of assembly, speech and media; independence of the judiciary; the fight against corruption, and the security sector reform.
Korski put it differently, describing the reform as means of tailoring markets to be Europe-compatible.
“What’s the most fundamental economic challenge for Egypt as relates to Europe? It’s no longer access to markets, because we basically give you plenty and plenty of access. The problem is gearing your economy to take advantage of that access,” he said.
The reform, he explained, would be geared towards integration; consequently eliminating the reward system implied in conditionality.
“Mutual accountability,” which turns conditionality into a two-way street, is brought up, but it too is shrouded with ambiguity.
In theory, this would entail Europe promising access to its markets and better regulations for legal migrations, while giving Egypt the right to hold its European partners accountable on the implementation of such promises.
“In the beginning we asked for mutual accountability. We are happy that they adopted this concept,” Hamdy said, “But how can we apply the mutual accountability? Will the rise of right wing in Europe facilitate mutual accountability?”
Parties adopting anti-immigration platforms — the extreme part of which had showed its ugly face in the Norway July shootings — have been gaining traction in Europe with visible impact on policies. Hamdy explained that there was no acceptable mechanism to challenge such policies directly to governments, even with mutual accountability governing relations with the Union.
“They would tell me it’s a sovereign right. Consequently, they need to accept that some things are also my sovereign right,” he added.
“Mutual accountability is a very bright term, but when it comes to its application it’s very difficult to apply.”
For Hamdy, the plan remains unclear or rather incomplete. “The commission communiqué released in May … still doesn’t define the policy. There are new components that they want to add, like increasing the role of civil society, the media and the law, and monitoring the elections. These are good issues, but we have to know what’s in it for us.”
The channel for communication and bettering relations also needs boosting and clarification. “The European Union hasn’t recognized until this moment that the Union for Mediterranean is the regional arm for cooperation with the Mediterranean,” said Hamdy, who’s also the coordinator of the UfM at Egypt’s foreign ministry.
The UfM initially had a mandate of bettering political relations in the region through economic and social cooperation. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to be a thorny subject, in addition to Egypt’s objection to sitting on the same table as current Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — due to previous comments he made against Egypt and its ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Agriculture, which was noted by EU officials as an important venue for cooperation, is still not on the priorities of the UfM, according to Hamdy. A recent ban on imports of some Egyptian seeds, over concerns its fenugreek was causing E.coli, has the potential of stoking further tension.
Ambiguous strategies and goals
The ambiguity is to some extent mutual and extends beyond immediate demands.
On the one hand, Europe is hesitant about the type of regimes and political and economic systems that will emerge in Egypt and Tunisia. On the other hand, with transition government in control, both North African countries are yet to determine what they want on the long run, whether domestically or in foreign policies.
The extra funds promised by the EU won’t be injected into programs except after October. The timing has to do more with logistics within the Union, but it also gives the EU the opportunity to wait and see the results of promised elections; i.e. a clearer indication of the future. On Oct. 24, Tunisians will vote a constituent assembly to draft a constitution and in November Egyptians will choose a parliament.
According to Hamdy, meetings with his European counterparts over the past few months were dominated by three questions: whether Egypt would allow monitoring of the elections; the policy towards funding civil society groups and the controversial, Mubarak-era NGO law; and political Islam.
Egypt’s announcement that it won’t accept election monitors didn’t have a noticeable impact on its foreign relations. The recent government decision to investigate the sources of funding of civil society groups, seen by many activists as a guised witch-hunt against critics, is yet to have an impact.
Before Egypt’s ruling military council announced it won’t accept international monitors, observers weren’t expecting much reaction in case of a rejection.
The absence of an impasse — over two issues with vital impact on the five benchmarks Fule noted — could be interpreted as more respect to the sovereignty of the new governments or a return to the days when Europe would turn a blind eye to issues it labeled as violations or setbacks.
Respecting sovereignty and pushing for reform out of a proclaimed self-righteous policy have often battled under the Mubarak regime in reshaping the West’s response to local issues and the consequent reaction of Egyptian activists. There’s a feeling nothing has changed on that front.
This confusion is generating its own set of concerns in Europe. “It strikes us after some time here that the military is … wedded to a traditional view of the world, us against the world, is concerned about all manners of international involvement in ways that are reminiscent of the Cold War-Third World-post colonial powers,” Korski of ECFR said.
The rise of political Islam, however, remains on top of the list. In Brussels, many officials this reporter spoke to were careful not to confuse political Islam with a theocratic state. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood for example, once a scarecrow the Mubarak regime used to ward off demands of reform, didn’t constitute a threat.
Speaking on the morning of July 29 — when the ultra conservative Salafi groups dominated a Friday demonstration in Tahrir Square demanding the implementation of Sharia among other issues — Mark Leonard, director of ECFR, explained that the Turkish example has quelled fears about an Islamic party assuming power, with problems there more similar to Putin’s in Moscow than to the concerns typically associated with the Islamic factor. Other issues affecting Europe’s relationship with Islamists, Korski explained, include a better understanding of the complexities of the different groups and an apprehension towards alienating partners, especially in a country like Egypt.
Yet, according to Hamdy, EU officials are concerned about who would represent political Islam if it assumes power. It’s not just the Brotherhood anymore, he said, noting the rise of Salafis for example, along with more players emerging on the scene.
The questions don’t stop at who’s who. “The main concerns are about the size of [Islamists] in parliament and their influence in formulating government decision and economic, political and social direction. And their relations with neighboring countries, whether it’s Israel, Iran or Turkey. And of course how this reflects on relations with the West in general,” Hamdy explained.
On the other side of the fence, Egypt has a lot of unanswered questions. They could all be classified under one: What does it want?
“What people can’t comprehend to this very moment is that we are really talking about a new experience,” Hamdy said about the elections, expected to draw millions of new voters, with no solid speculation about the results. The political and economic implications of the elections are also unclear.
“To be fair, as an Egyptian, I don’t see that we are walking on a clear, straight path,” he said, indicating that Europe’s hesitation is understandable.
According to Leonard, Egypt is trying to find its authentic, post-Mubarak voice.
Relations in transition
In spite of the uncertainty governing the future, both sides have clearer ideas about the transition.
For Europe, in its proclaimed mandate of seeking reform, it’s speaking out against immediate violations or problems. “It’s fine for European states to speak out [loudly against] military tribunals or if there’s violence or torture,” Leonard said, stressing the need to refrain from domestic debates, like determining the type of parliamentary system for example.
For Egypt, it’s immediate economic assistance. EU officials in Brussels conveyed a message from their Egyptian counterparts that without such assistance, there might not be a tomorrow for Egypt. In Cairo Hamdy echoed the same sentiment.
“Economic assistance shouldn’t wait for the achievement of the political reform. This is my problem with the European concept,” he explained. “Yes, more for more, right, so I’ll wait to see if you had fair elections, then I’ll see how I can compensate you. This [shouldn’t] be the case.”