Amr Hamzawy: Policy Fusion

Amr Hamzawy: Policy Fusion

While US foreign policy continues to be formulated with an eye on short-term goals — forget the all too common obsession that there are secret projects stowed away in the State Department”s strategic planning units to partition the region into petty states — European policies towards the Middle East, at both the national and EU levels, emanate from the premise that their tools for implementation are confined to the instruments of soft diplomacy, i.e. commercial relations, economic aid, bilateral and multilateral forums, and function in accordance with a multi-tiered approach that never loses sight of long-range strategies while allowing for alternatives that can be tried, tested and corrected along the way. The EU management of the Barcelona process and the Euro-Med partnership exemplifies this approach.

The conjunction between limited instruments and chronological depth allows EU policy to include intricate and reasoned analyses of the issues affecting Arab societies. Those that have had the fortune to glimpse the process up close cannot help but admire the wealth and energy of European academic discourse. Over the past two weeks I had the opportunity to interview officials from the European Commission and the British, French and German foreign ministries on their views on reform, democratisation and sustainable development in the Arab world. The interviews shed considerable light on the focal points of, and attitudes behind, their approach.

On reform the Europeans appear to have moved beyond the oscillation of recent years when one moment they would say that Arab societies were not ready for democracy and the next that economic and social development were creating political openings that were taking the Arabs to the threshold of democratic transition.

 Today they tend to attribute Arab failure to achieve any qualitative shift towards the peaceful rotation of power and the curbing of the tyranny of the executive over the legislature and judiciary to lack of sufficient appetite for reform on the part of ruling elites, the sustainable costs of authoritarian management of state and social relations, powerful security agencies, weak and fragmented opposition, and the fragility of the grassroots democratisation movement. The Europeans go beyond this generalised framework to differentiate between cases such as Kuwait and Morocco, where the mechanisms for democratic competition exhibit a degree of stability, the legislature and judiciary are gradually acquiring greater autonomy and human rights abuses have declined, the situation in Egypt and Jordan, where the room for manoeuvre of a restricted plurality expands and contracts as the government fluctuates between repressive and less repressive attitudes, and countries such as Syria and Tunisia, in which open or systematic political competition is non-existent and political life is dominate by a monolithic state party.

It is interesting that the EU Commission and the British, French and German foreign ministries concur that there are few opportunities for international support for democratic reform in the Arab world, with the exception of Kuwait and Morocco and possibly Yemen, and to a lesser extent Algeria and Bahrain. But this new European consensus does not involve a blind eye being turned to political developments in other Arab societies: indeed, there is a strong inclination to focus, within the framework of neighbourly policy, Euro-Med cooperation and the Euro- Gulf dialogue, on issues such as sound governance, combating corruption, modernising pubic institutions, supporting NGOs and promoting human rights.

 The general thinking is that democratisation should be left to domestic dynamics and that outside engineering will be counterproductive. Connected to this attitude is a very important shift in European thinking with respect to Islamist opposition movements. No longer are such organisations as the Moroccan Justice and Development Party, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Kuwaiti Constitutional movement, automatic objects of suspicion or hostility. The trend now is to regard them as forces that should be recognised and brought into the political process despite the complications this might bring to some regional conflicts.

On the socio-economic level, and concerning opportunities for sustainable development, Europeans are currently very interested in the impact of the oil boom on Gulf Cooperation Council states and its repercussions on the rest of the region. In the opinion of many of the officials I met the rise in oil revenues has propelled Gulf societies towards a second spurt of modernisation (the first taking place in the 1970s) founded upon sophisticated administrative and economic systems that have invested heavily in education, scientific research and human resource development. On the negative side, however, they feel that political elites still lack the will to formulate and implement policies to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor, to dismantle state monopolies and to improve the inhumane conditions of foreign labour. They are also deeply concerned about falling standards of living in densely populated countries with limited resources. Specifically, they are attempting to interpret the dialectic between this and the accelerated pace of liberal economic reforms within a context that lacks institutions capable of securing the rotation of authority, a situation that contrasts sharply with the experience of democratic transition in the West.

The Europeans are aware that using commercial relations and economic cooperation arrangements will not go far in inducing Gulf countries to remedy their faults (the same applies to Washington”s use of free trade zone agreements and their attendant conditions). The Gulf is still comfortably buffered from such pressure by the high price of oil and the many alternatives to EU partnership, notably China, India, Russia and Brazil. They hold out more hope for the development of joint investment initiatives with the Gulf countries in states in North Africa and the Near East plagued by high unemployment and poverty rates, and for bilateral and multilateral dialogue focussing on the need to prioritise the social dimensions of deregulation and sustain a minimum level of social justice in market economies. They are concerned by what they increasingly regard as a causal relationship between the separation of economic and political reform tracks and the consistent success of Arab ruling elites at fragmenting the democratisation movement by forging an alliance with financial and business circles, a heavy-handed security policy and the ability to exploit the fears and anxieties of a middle class that is dependent upon the approval of the elites and their allies for its share of the constantly shrinking pie of social wealth.

A detailed, multi-tiered and multi-pronged incremental approach that marginalises ideological dogmatism, limited but carefully deployed means of influence, the effects of a contentious superpower, and increasingly fierce rivalries between the emerging powers of the East — such are the primary contours of the Europeans” reading of social change in the Arab world and the focal areas of their concern in the region in the near future.