x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Democracy is debatable

With the recent violence in Libya and Egypt, the United States and Europe have shifted their thinking on democratic reform in Mena, writes Paul Hockenos.

Anti-Morsi protesters attempt to remove a barrier on a road leading to the presidential palace in Cairo on Tuesday.
Anti-Morsi protesters attempt to remove a barrier on a road leading to the presidential palace in Cairo on Tuesday.

Both the European Union and the United States have stepped gingerly in the shifting political sands of the Middle East and North Africa since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

On the one hand, they want to encourage promising, newly elected leaderships, like that in Tunisia, as well as other democratic-minded actors across the region. Yet the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya loom large: the West is being extremely cautious not to intervene with too heavy a hand.

"The EU and the US are walking a very fine line between overselling themselves and giving in to the temptation to give up altogether," explains the British political scientist Richard Youngs, director of FRIDE, a Spain-based European think tank. Youngs, currently on leave and serving as a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund's (GMF) offices in Brussels and Washington, specialises in the fields of democracy promotion, democratisation and European foreign policy in the Mena region. His most recent book, Europe's Decline and Fall: The Struggle Against Global Irrelevance, examines the opportunities that the new world order offers a rejuvenated EU.

"The West has to realise that it's not going to be the main arbitrator of democracy in Mena. The way these political transitions unfold," says Youngs, "whether a liberal model succeeds or fails is not in our hands," he says, adding, "which certainly doesn't mean we're without political influence at all."

The Arab Spring countries "will probably not want to upload certain sets of rules and other templates from the West," says Youngs. "The measure of success for Western donors is going to be very different, say, from Central and Eastern Europe after their revolutions."

The victory of Islamists at the polls in Tunisia and Egypt complicates the funding of democratic culture and institutions.

"We can't allow ourselves to get hung up on the Islamist questions," warns Youngs. "We have to normalise our understanding of Islam. More important is to have sound institutional structures within which Islamist parties participate rather than becoming fixated with this party or that. The concept of democracy as such is up for debate and they'll be different types emerging from these processes."

Even though the EU and, to an even greater degree, the US initially wavered during the Arab revolutions' early rumblings, they have since doubled their efforts to nurture pluralistic structures where dictatorships fell and invigorate change from below where authoritarian regimes still rule the day. The resources committed to democracy promotion cover a vast range of sources, as does the pallet of democratisation programmes itself, spanning media reform and women's rights to education and elections support.

The EU has already spent €600 million (Dh2.84 billion) on democratic reform projects, and recently increased its aid for those countries in its "neighbourhood" programme, which includes the entire southern Levant, to €6.9bn over three years (2011-2013). Brussels recently announced a two-year, €5bn support package for the Egyptian economy from different EU financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Just a glance at the EU agenda reveals programmes ranging from judicial reform in Lebanon and civil society support in Tunisia, to parliamentary exchanges between the Morocco and the EU parliament, as well as human rights and, in particular, women's rights just about everywhere. The Council of Europe is working on constitutional reform across the southern Mediterranean.

Individual countries also have their own hobby horses: The UK Arab Partnership Fund, with a €130m budget, targets political participation. Sweden funds an investigative reporting training centre, while the Dutch do multiparty training, the French pay for transnational justice, and Germany provides advisory services to NGOs. The Danes tripled their soft aid to the region and doubled the numbers of countries receiving it.

US democracy programming is equally diffuse, spread across different government agencies. The Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund is the centrepiece of its response to the uprisings. The requested US$700m (Dh2.57bn) in new funds from Congress would establish the fund as the Obama administration's signature foreign assistance initiative in the region. The USAID budget for foreign aid to Mena is $1.7bn, some but not all of which goes toward democratic reform projects.

Despite the impressive sound of the numbers, Youngs points out that the magnitude of democratisation funding is nothing like the scale of funds transferred to Southern or Eastern Europe in the wake of their transitions. The aid so far is "a drop in the ocean alongside the billions that the revolutions have cost in lost production," concluded Youngs in a widely circulated essay for the GMF entitled Funding Arab Reform?

Civil society actors on the ground, he says, are particularly frustrated with what the West has offered them, especially after the decades of propping up authoritarian regimes. They even banded together to write the EU's foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, a protest letter. Among their claims was that the EU still prioritised government-to-government aid as well as favouring semi-independent NGOs that had been or still are connected to the state. They argue that there's more continuity than change in the way that European funding is spent.

The hesitancy to dig deep into foreign aid pots - or create new ones - stems in part from fear of stirring up more problems than those their expensive, well-intentioned programmes aim to solve. But, argues Youngs, there is an array of issues in play. The economic crises on both sides of the Atlantic have strained budgets. Despite the unprecedented outlay of cash in the Balkans, the democratic transitions in that region have been rocky, costing more work, more money, and more time than the Europeans could have imagined. And then there's Iraq and Afghanistan, where years of occupation and armies of both soldiers and civilian administrators couldn't entrench anything resembling western democratic structures. Also, Young says that there are now other international actors involved, like China, that don't share the West's reform goals.

Yet, despite the raw environment, at least the US and the EU are working more closely together. "In the mid-2000s, it was like the Americans and the Europeans were living on completely different planets," says Youngs, referring to democracy and human rights agendas. "With the Obama administration there has been a convergence with European views, which is certainly a welcome development," he says. "You see a lot of working together on the ground, especially where there's overlap, like in programmes with social and economic aims, the encouraging of entrepreneurship, economic growth, small businesses, and so forth."

As for the current Obama term, Youngs says it starts from a much better position than four years ago. "Unlike the Bush administrations, Obama's team understands the underlying conditions for democracy to survive and prosper in the Middle East. But both the US and the EU have a long way to go to catch up with the magnitude of what happened in the region. They're still behind the curve."

Youngs sees complex political challenges ahead. In Egypt, relations with both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood will call for unconventional diplomacy and aid measures. Libya already has considerable financial resources, but requires support from both the US and the EU if a democratic system is to prevail. As for Syria, there is the question of which opposition factions to support, if any. And, says Youngs, there has to be preplanning for the day that the regime falls.

"There's a much smaller margin of error here than there was in Eastern Europe," says Youngs. "This leads some to say that nothing can be done to make a difficult, complicated situation better. I disagree. But support has to be recalibrated and delivered in a more low-profile way. It's not just about the quantity of aid, but the way it's applied in this entirely new context."

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer.