Europe and NATO's response to the Arab Uprisings

Western governments need to recognize that authoritarian regimes are often fierce but not strong; that privatisation is rarely the road to liberalisation, much less democratization; and that Islamism was as wrong-footed by the uprisings as they were

The Atlantic memo opens by pointing out that regional instability has been the consequence of uprisings and regime change of one kind or another. That instability is associated with change ought not in itself to be surprising. What is of greater concern is of course that the particular way issues facing new regimes have been dealt with has brought instability. In Egypt, for example, the military junta in power has actively undermined the transition and stoked tensions by stalling handover of power, stonewalling important interlocutors (e.g. the ‘youth’, trade unions, Sinai tribes, etc.) and playing politics with gas supplies to Israel and Jordan, the Gaza question, the passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal, and most recently with Saudi Arabia itself.

Instability, for the authors, is undesirable because it may become the harbinger of state failure, civil conflict, and institutional collapse, causing refugee crises, increased illegal arms trafficking, and ‘political radicalization resulting in a Somali-like setting  [sic] near European shores’. While these are indisputably undesirable outcomes, it is not obvious a priori that instability must necessarily produce such effects: it is surely how these uncertain and fluid post-uprising environments are dealt with that will affect whether ‘instability’ leads to democratic transition, or descends into the apocalyptic scenario envisaged in the article’s opening paragraph.

In particular, any descent back into authoritarianism will depend in part on the policies of the regional community and global powers. Crucially, western governments whose policies were partly responsible for propping up the authoritarian regimes toppled by the uprisings must examine those policies which helped produce those effects - policies to which certain specific conceptions of ‘security’ and ‘stability’ are central. A critical re-examination of past policies is crucial to both post-uprising transition processes and to future Mediterranean relations.

Leaving these issues aside for a moment, consider the kinds of policy recommendations contained in these briefing notes. The briefs argue that the answer to such instability is ‘fostering regional stability’, and that the best way of doing so is to ‘develop good relations with new and emerging leaders,’ and ‘empower civil society and youth groups’ that are the ‘cornerstone of sustainable democracy’ – all typical diagnoses one could easily come across in any number of official policy papers. These principles, it is argued, then translate themselves into several policy recommendations:

First, ‘restructure the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) to allow for a more incentivized and effective partnership and consultation’. Fine in principle, as the cautionary tale of the EU’s Union for the Mediterranean suggests, this depends largely on politics between governments, which NATO is hardly best-placed to facilitate.

Secondly, the authors recommend the use of positive conditionality, for example in relation to Libya, offering ‘carrots’ in order to stabilize the political context. Conditionality is not necessarily an ineffective or undesirable tool in itself, but given how badly both positive and negative conditionality have worked in the case of the EU’s Mediterranean relations – discredited by being subject to political imperatives, not to mention laying the EU open to accusations of ‘normative imperialism’ – considerable skepticism would be the best starting point for working out how such a mechanism could be made to work.

Thirdly, the report recommends reaching out to ‘significant actors’. The problem is that in the past, policy has focused precisely on ‘king-makers’ instead of issues, and has ended up empowering existing networks of patronage rather than fostering transitions to democracy (e.g. the military in Egypt).

Fourthly, the briefs recommend Security Sector Reform (SSR) and military-to-military cooperation, in which NATO can play a role by “educat[ing] militaries on operating in a democratic society”. This, however, does not recognize that the main problem is not education, but the incentive structures which clientelism provides which strongly militate against democratization, SSR and the ‘normalisation’ of civil-military relations. For example, while there is an undeniably serious problem with the institutional cultures of security organisations in Egypt, the primary obstacles which prevent the Egyptian military from taking part in serious SSR and democratic transition in general, are their often- observed massive stake in the economy and (therefore) their unwillingness to accept oversight by democratic authorities, Islamist or otherwise. Moreover, similar attempts were made before the uprisings with ‘party twinning’ programmes, most of which have produced at best mixed results.

Fifthly, perhaps the most striking recommendation is to “[e]stablish a Bureaucratic Development Program (BDP) to foster a competent and trustworthy civil service.” This is especially surprising, not only because of the suggestion that a military organization is best placed to train civilian administrators, but also because it singularly fails to acknowledge just how bad the reputational damage has been as a result of western governments’ policies in the region for at least the past century or so. The notion that swathes of Arab protesters would happily march to NATO ‘basic administrative training’ – or indeed, training of any kind – is strikingly naïve. The same goes for joint EU-NATO training of civil society, which the authors also recommend.

Even if any civil society group were actually to join such a programme, the only effect it would have would be to instantly destroy any shred of credibility such an organisation might have had. The idea of building on the Arab League is similarly problematic, as its corruption and political fecklessness in the eyes of Arab public opinion(s) is notorious.

Finally, one might observe that some of the specific challenges to regional stability – as well as to the internal stability of European states in particular – are absent in this account; namely the rise of Saudi Arabia and the destabilizing impact this has had on both Arab countries and their European counterparts.

Diagnosing past mistakes

The fundamental challenge for both NATO and the EU is to avoid making the same mistakes which lead western governments to find themselves on the wrong side of history (as they continue to be most obviously in places like Bahrain). Unfortunately, none of the contributions in Partners in Democracy begin from such a historical diagnosis, in particular recognizing the way in which western governments’ past policies have contributed to produce the very situation which popular revolts have targeted. The problem with the diagnosis, goals, and methods suggested by the authors is that this absence of a historical perspective means that they largely rely on the same conceptions of risk, the same goals, and the same methods that were the foundations of the pre-uprisings policy. In particular, the root of pre-2011 policy failures lies precisely in a conception of threat typical of western governments’ policy stances, based around the possible rise to power of unsympathetic forces, particularly Islamists. This, after all, was the reason why, before the uprisings which led to their ouster, EU and NATO governments were happy to accept regimes like those of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

The challenge of re-thinking the basis for strategic, political and economic relations with the Arab region is certainly considerable. But certain lessons can be learned from the Arab Uprisings which can help to rethink policy. They are readily available. First, western governments need to recognize that authoritarian regimes are often fierce but not strong: they appear solid, not least by regularly wielding force, primarily against their own populations. But that ferocity masks a fundamental brittleness, which was precisely what the Arab Uprisings have revealed.

Secondly, privatization is rarely the road to liberalization, much less democratization. In Egypt, for example, privatizations resulted in the transfer of state wealth into private hands, but did not lead to liberalization, nor did a growing private sector demand either liberalization or democratization. On the contrary, crony capitalism reinforced autocracy.

Equally importantly, such new-found wealth did not ‘trickle down’, but rather polarized income differences and even eroded the middle classes, which is a key factor behind these groups’ support of the uprisings. In this context, it seems odd – at best – to recommend further liberalization (which in fairness the authors of Partners in Democracy do not do, but which current EU and US policy does most emphatically insist upon).

Thirdly, that contrary to the beliefs of both many Islamists and many western policymakers, in the long term Islamism is not the (only) solution. The uprisings may have brought Islamist groups to the fore because these were the best-organised political forces. But the fact remains that moderates (Muslim Brotherhood, Nahda party, etc.), Salafists, and co-opted religious elites (e.g. the Azhar in Egypt) were as badly wrong-footed by the uprisings as their regimes or indeed western governments.

Popular demands in the uprisings can best be summarised in their two best-known slogans: ash-sha’b yurid isqaat an-nizaam (the people want the downfall of the regime) and ‘aish, horreya, adala igtema'eya (bread, freedom, social justice). This is nothing short of a critique of the oligarchic, authoritarian kleptocracies which largely still dominate the Middle East, and the demand for a more inclusive society, economy and politics. The challenge is for western governments to recognize these demands and adapt their foreign policies accordingly.

Back to basics

The uprisings suggest that pursuing policies which actually promoted a broader, more substantive conception of democracy – rather than a myopic short-term ‘stability’ – would indeed have harvested a considerable strategic advantage for western governments. One need only think of the uncomfortable contortions Russia and China have been forced into to see this (and conversely, the equally awkward ideological funambulism western governments have resorted to in relation to Bahrain).

Taking these lessons seriously can indeed help re-think western governments’ policies towards the Middle East and North Africa. The main way they can do so is to change our assessment of the root causes of instability; challenge the dominant assumption that the best way to pursue long term stability is to foster the emergence of ‘strong’ interlocutors; and help reassess the calculations of costs and benefits which a transitional democratic ‘(in)stability’ entail.

None of these are particularly mysterious facts or surprisingly counterintuitive analyses. The problem for policymakers is not – or ought not to be – being exposed to such alternatives: most civil servants and policy-makers worth their salt know them well. The difficulty they face is to be able to accept the short- to medium-term costs such a committed democracy-promotion entails. This task is made that much harder by the pursuit for at least a generation of domestic policies which have undermined the ‘European Social Model’ and ruptured the hopes of social harmony and progress nurtured by earlier post-war generations, creating deep social, ethnic and religious rifts inside Europe.

About the author

Andrea Teti is Director of the Centre for Global Security and Governance at the University of Aberdeen and Senior Fellow at the Brussels-based European Centre for International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @a_teti.