We should have called it differently. But the energy, the passion and the hope on the southern shore of the Mediterranean in early 2011 did resemble a sudden burst of spring. The Arab world was crying out for change – change for the better. The hurdles it met, and is meeting, should not surprise anyone. But there is no way back. The Arab struggle for political and social progress will go forward, at its own pace and within its own constraints. It is time for us, in Europe, to take stock of the lessons learned in the past two years of Mediterranean transformation. In confronting the latest developments in Egypt, the “Arab spring” label appears flawed – and so it was, indeed, from the beginning. However evocative to western ears, it never made sense to the Arabs themselves. It dearly pigeonholed their revolutions into European categories, mentally. Not only that: it was patronising and through naive imagery it conveyed the notion of a smooth, linear and almost automatic transition to democracy, after long winters of authoritarian rule. The Egyptian predicament – on top of armed volatility in Libya, an ongoing civil war in Syria, political tensions even in Tunisia – shows how change in the Arab world is and will be much more complex than predicted. Is this the end of the process started more than two years ago? Or is it the end of our naive expectations? Egypt, a key regional actor and often a trendsetter, proves that democratic transitions are much longer and more violent than we are willing to acknowledge. Particularly when they emerge from the bottom up. We tend to forget the blood and pain shed on the road to democracy – everywhere. Europe’s history is full of bumps, stops and starts, and tragedies. Pitfalls are likely to happen especially if new leaders do not live up to their people’s aspirations.
Failing to realise that winning an election does not give a leader authorisation to seize all state power and disregard minorities is a case in point: here lies, in fast, the gulf between formal and substantial democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood behaved democratically by «inning elections through the support of a large component of Egyptian society. However, once in government, it did not abide by the separation of powers nor did it grant full rights to its opponents.
What if democratic change produces partial democracies – or “illiberal” ones (to use western political terminology)? Can it be that, on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, the only game in town is a stark choice between illiberal democracies run by Islamic parties and secular regimes propped up by armies? Here we must avoid either turning the clock back, dubbing the Arab world unfit for democracy, or looking again for simplistic formulas. We need, instead, a much wiser, more insightful and patient approach, starting from three basic points: fast, the region is internally very diverse – it represents, as in Rami Khouri’s definition of events in Egypt, a “kaleidoscope” of developments. Each revolution in the Arab world originates from different historical and societal roots and faces specific challenges.
Second, and consequently, a one-size-fits-all policy – seldom a good idea – cannot produce positive results. What is needed is a common strategy, but also case-by-case decisions. We cannot approach the southern Mediterranean countries with a “pret à porter” foreign policy. We need to deal with each “revolution” (or “evolution”, as the case may be) on its own merits.
Finally, change that started in 2011 is irreversible, in spite of the Islamists’ slide toward “illiberal” democracy or the lingering nostalgia of “liberals” for the secular role of the army. We Europeans should avoid complacency to better understand the region around us. In the case of Egypt, any new political arrangement will have to include the Muslim Brotherhood, the apparent losers of the moment. The EU is rightly calling – through Cathy Ashton – for a quick return to a government legitimised by democratic elections and the release of all political prisoners. The lesson learned, however, is that another form of “illiberal” democracy – however disguised – will not grant either internal stability or socioeconomic growth. Substantial democracy means more than elections. A division of labour should also apply to our own side. We should focus our efforts and share responsibilities among ourselves. This does not mean going back to a rationale of “influence”. Far from it. It means agreeing with our Mediterranean partners on how tasks can be distributed among Europeans. This is what Italy is trying to do particularly in helping Libya to overcome current internal strains. Of course, the end result will depend on the Arab and Mediterranean peoples themselves. However, Europe’s role will be instrumental in accompanying and sustaining difficult transitions in the Arab world with responsibility, patience and critical judgment. The Arab spring label is over. The Arab struggle for a better future certainly is not.