Turkey and the European Union stand to gain most from the Arab Spring, a new survey suggests, while the United States is unlikely to glean a democracy dividend arising from the regional turmoil.
Those actors perceived to “have been the least supportive of political change – China, Russia and Iran – stand to lose influence in the region, just as those actors who are viewed as the most supportive during the Arab Spring – Turkey and the EU – stand to gain,” according to the third Euromed survey of actors and policies in the Arab Spring.
The EU is considered the second most supportive actor, ahead of the US but behind Turkey, a “remarkable” result that may be explained by the EU’s normative power, say researchers Helle Malmvig and Fabrizio Tassinari:
In light of the often-voiced criticism of EU policies – being too late, too little and too uncoordinated – this is a notable finding that points to the relatively strong role and credibility of the EU in the region compared to other outside actors. The EU ’s self-perception and identification as a “normative actor” no doubt play a significant part in this positive assessment, just as the EU ’s historical, cultural, and geographical proximity to the MENA countries should also be taken into account. Moreover, the EU and leading European Heads of State have been relatively visible and active with regard to the revolutionary events in the Arab world – especially after the initial and somewhat hesitant responses to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Since March 2011 the EU has introduced several initiatives, including a Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean, a revised Neighbourhood Policy, and a new Endowment for Democracy, they note, “while the US has self-consciously taken more of a backseat.”
But the survey confirms that the EU is “above all seen as reactive rather than proactive,” they complain:
The highest European grade when it comes to supporting political change thus coincides with the three countries that have seen a clear-cut regime change out of the Arab Spring (Libya 72%; Tunisia 58% and Egypt 48%). Whereas a relative majority of respondents regards the EU as having preserved the status quo in Morocco (45%) and Jordan (44%), the EU is seen as having had no impact on domestic developments in Algeria (49%) and in Lebanon (48%). Interestingly, the latter is at the same time viewed as one of the MPC countries with the greatest chances of developing a lasting democracy.
While much public opinion in the region believes the US is hostile to Arab democratic aspirations, the reality is rather different, notes one analyst.
“In both Egypt and Tunisia, the US has played its hand in the transitions rather well, recognizing that if it wants to remain relevant and have influence, it has to deal with the emerging political forces,” writes the FT’s Roula Khalaf:
Mrs Clinton landed in Cairo in the midst of an intense power struggle between Mr Morsi and the generals intent on a power grab to protect their interests. She carefully weighed her words, calling for a “full transition to civilian rule with all it entails” but without antagonising the military or hinting the US would withhold assistance to the generals.
A cautious approach makes sense at this stage but Washington must also be ready to use its financial leverage with the generals more forcefully if they step up their obstruction of the democratic transition. There can be no illusion, moreover, about the Brotherhood or the fact that the relationship is likely to become trickier, not least on foreign policy.
The Euromed survey suggests that the “underlying tension between the EU ’s short-term security policies and long-term support for democratization is likely to continue influencing future European policy in the region, creating well-known contradictions and dilemmas”:
Yet the Arab Spring and the relative positive assessment of EU policies compared to other external actors also create new opportunities for the EU in the region. Europe clearly does not start from scratch when it comes to supporting political reform in the Mediterranean, and can with the unfolding events speak with a much clearer voice than before. Moreover, with the US self-consciously withdrawing from the region, the EU is bound to play an even greater part in the region’s economic development, political reform processes and further integration with the European Union.
The US also faces the delicate challenge of engaging Islamists, the dominant force in the region, while maintaining support for beleaguered Arab liberals who nevertheless, as recent events in Libya demonstrate, have the potential to emerge as a vital counterweight or alternative to Islamist rule.
“In most corners of the Arab world, liberals who look to Washington for support – and are the west’s more natural allies – are still weak. But they cannot be written off,” writes Khalaf:
Islamists remain the more powerful political force today in much of the region – and they are one of the main opposition groups fighting to topple the Syrian regime. But while they represent an important segment of society, their staying power and ability to govern is only now starting to be tested. In calibrating policy towards emerging Arab democracies, the US should be supporting elected institutions – working with Islamists on the one hand but not alienating the anxious liberals on the other.