A wave of popular discontent rocked the Arab world in the wake of the first Tunisian demonstrations back in December 2010. For the first time in Arab history, citizens took to the streets calling for dignity, democracy and social justice. But Richard Youngs and Raquel Álvarez point out that although the sheer scale of these uprisings has far exceeded all expectations, the European Union has failed to grasp the true extent of the difficulties posed by these sometimes violent political and economic transitions.
The majority of modern Arab nations resulted from the disintegration of the Ottoman empire. Some, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Morocco, were relatively unique as they each had a history of being a nation state, although this did not greatly affect the way they were governed. The colonial era had a profound impact on domestic politics in the region, with aggressive nationalism and overbearing pan-Arabism resulting in the emergence of a number of authoritarian, often militarily-led state structures. In contrast, the Arab spring uprisings have their roots in societies themselves and call for a different kind of politics. From a social perspective, this means that Arab societies are in the process of overcoming their authoritarian heritage, but from a political perspective there is the ever-present danger of religious radicalism.
Many challenges lie ahead in terms of strategy and security, as it is not only the political landscape that is changing but also the overall strategic situation. We are seeing the emergence of governments that will listen more attentively to what the people, or at least voters, have to say. They are also going to adopt new perspectives when devising foreign policies less dependent on western views. So the European Union must be ready to deal with the new relationships that will emerge in a region that is much less controlled than only a short time ago. This is not unlike a second wave of decolonisation, forcing the EU to look for new forms of North-South co-operation based on these ideas. Its present vision is clearly defined in the EU’s 2011 communication that marked the launch of ‘A new response to a changing Neighbourhood’ which echoed foreign policy chief Ashton’s proposals outlining ‘Partnership for democracy and prosperity with the southern Mediterranean’.
With the Arab world still being shaken by the winds of a revolution re-shaping the political landscape, it is important for both sides of the Mediterranean that the EU should take the initiative and play a role dictated by its economic power and history. The changes in the Arab world have already led to an unprecedented awakening of political consciousness and to a whole new set of political demands. The people are calling for the elite in power to be held accountable and for more social justice.
Brahim Fassi Fihri is president and co-founder of the Institut Amadeus, a Moroccan think tank. email@example.com