Some of us might consider the acquittal of Mubarak, the failure of state-building in Libya, the civil war in Syria, the sectarian war in Yemen, or the international silence and approval of crushing protesters in Bahrain the death of the so-called Arab Spring. We might also say Lucky Tunisia, the only survivor of such a Shakespearean tragedy!
First of all, how much more short-sighted can we get, calling a revolution a spring? As if it is a shopping season. Maybe it is, for the media industry and the news commercialisation machine. At the end of the day, in the 21st century, a news story has become like any other product. The sexier it gets, the more it sells. In today’s news production world, violence has become one of those normalised, sexy and attractive products. Having said this, why not call the Arab Revolutions Arab Christmas? Why not, if it entertains us like a thriller film, and uses us to generate a few extra millions into the pockets of the world’s media production machine?
A revolution is not a spring picnic in the park, or a summer tan by the beach. A revolution is a very long and complex process of attack and retreat in a very long battle, between the new and the old, the revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary, until the values of justice and freedom are institutionally installed. A process that can take years and maybe a decade or more, while we are still continuing to learn about the very long French Revolution that changed the face of Europe, and what went right or wrong in its extended course of developments and fluctuations. A revolution cannot be labelled as a success or a failure after a one-season TV show, while having popcorn. We can only judge long after the battle is over, and the dust is settled.
It is well documented that in the wake of the Arab Revolutions, the EU in December 2011 launched a programme called ‘No Disconnect Strategy‘ in order to protect internet access as a driver of political freedom. Announcing the strategy, the vice-president of the European Commission back then, who was responsible for the EU’s Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, said: “In 2011, video-sharing services helped expose regime abuses. They made us aware and better able to take action…Repressive regimes now understand the power of these networks and have tried to turn them off… They did not succeed. And the EU is working to ensure online rights are respected like offline rights.”
It is also well observed that the EU, in the past 10 years, launched many programmes and allocated big funds for the support of human rights and media freedom. Facts and actions that show Europe’s general interest in seeing such values met and fulfilled. But just let’s leave these rosy general remarks, and focus on realities by asking ourselves a very important question: Where is Europe’s actual position from all what has been happening in the Arab region until shortly before the recent rise of ISIS and the current skyrocketing Islamophobia?
In order to answer this question, as an outsider, who experienced life in 11 European countries, and observed European cultures, by meeting stakeholders from heads of governments and EU officials, all the way to the invisible homeless in European streets, allow me to share with you four snapshots, two success and two failures, followed by a few findings that might help us understand Europe’s actual position from the ongoing change in that southern neighbourhood of former colonies called the Arab World.
Snapshot I: In a celebration organised by the Swedish Embassy in Cairo in 2011 for launching an official website in Arabic produced by their government, about their own country, the ambassador explained that this website is a reaction to a 40% increase in the demand of information on European and Swedish systems by young Egyptians. The Swedish government later also launched a Twitter account and a Facebook page, both in Arabic as well, in order to communicate directly with the Arab youth, who forgot about the unpleasant past, and decided to seek answers to questions on details of how to run a democracy. Now, we can confidently say that Sweden has occupied a very special place in the hearts of young Arabs that secures Sweden a big stock of respect and appreciation beyond the short-sighted interests of the near future by most governments.
Comment: A little money and respect of other peoples’ aspirations can do wonders, that a lot of money might fail to achieve.
Snapshot II: Following the Arab Revolutions and the fall of dictators, some smart officials in the Netherlands quickly observed that the old regimes have not fallen yet, and many voices of young democracy advocates have been violently shut down. The Dutch government decided to launch a radio station and a website in Arabic, called Huna Sawtak – here’s your voice. A very valuable and critical tool that despite being very small, provides a loud voice for democracy and freedoms for those who were muted in their homeland. The station and the website have recently become a frequent source of trusted news and analysis for a considerable audience in the region.
Comment: Values of democracy can be an easily transmittable message, if a government decides and dares to consistently stand for them, not only by issuing pathetic statements of shy condemnations that are not worth their printing ink.
Snapshot III: Last November, the UK decided to accept the invitation of the Bahraini government to build a military base in their country by the Gulf, continuing to turn a blind eye to human rights violations and the regular violence and unlawful detentions practised against protesters and human rights activists.
Comment: Post-colonialist hangover with a touch of the 1960s fashion.
Snapshot IV: In a period of deadly crushing of protesters by the Egyptian police and army, the period when a constitution was being quickly cooked up, the period when a field marshal (now a president) decided to run for elections, despite his promises to the whole world and the EU that he would not, Lady Catherine Ashton, when she was still in office, decided to spend a part of her Christmas vacation in Egypt, regardless of the concerns that this could be locally perceived as an EU approval of such severe violations. It actually did happen, and the “private” Christmas visit was all over the local media, interpreted and manipulated as it was feared to be.
Comment: No decent careful words available for such careless behaviour.
Concluding this series of articles on Europe and its current relations with the Arab World, based on several official meetings with EU politicians and bureaucrats, embedded with social observations, I would claim to have reached five findings.
First, Europe in general, and the EU in particular, by intention, support values of democracy, freedom of expression and international human rights law for the Arab World, despite the miserable failures they repeat over and over.
Second, the EU expenditure on supporting the above mentioned values is very big. However, expenditure on so-called “economic development” is more of an indirect support for dictatorships, for the sake a “stability myth” that might provide Europe with trade partners. Nothing but naïve wishful thinking, and I expect it will go from bad to worse given the rise of ISIS in the region and Islamophobia in Europe.
Third, at the beginning of 2011, right after the break-out of the Arab Revolutions, values finally won in the classical dilemma of contemporary Europe “Values vs Interest”, where interests had previously always won. With the first obstacle met, since it came out not to be a “spring” as it was marketed, the majority of EU member states and some units within the EU decided to jump off the ship of values after it had just sailed for the first time, and quickly took the rescue-boats back to the shores they are historically familiar with, the old shores of interest games and fear of the dehumanised other.
Fourth, in addition to member state’s interests, some European companies do engage in dirty businesses with dictators, ranging from labour and natural resources exploitation, up to providing them with weapons and surveillance technologies to be used against citizens. Letting this happen makes any message of democracy sent to those fighting for it more of a message of hypocrisy than anything else.
Fifth, despite fear of the media-dehumanised other, especially with the current rise of Islamophobia – thanks to ISIS – European societies still relatively believe in the values of democracy and freedom for the same other they fear. I would even claim that those values are deeply rooted in the minds of the majority of European citizens. However, political representatives of European citizens seem to have a much lower ceiling for the same values of freedom and democracy for non-Europeans.
As a final remark, I would wishfully say that the EU should not look at itself as an investment bank, where member-states are profit-seeking shareholders, and big companies are back-door brokers of financial inflows, invisibly executing governments’ dirty businesses outside the “clean continent”, and getting away unquestioned. There is no need for Europe to launch more or spend more on democratisation programmes, in order for Europe to have any message of democracy sent to those Arabs. First, Europe needs to be consistent and coherent on all levels before having that message sent or clearly received and understood as a message of democratic values more than a post-colonialist old fashioned game, where European taxpayers’ money becomes nothing but a waste.