Can Europe promote Arab democracy?

In last week’s edition of Al Ahram Weekly, James Zogby from the Arab American Institute argued that the US should not promote democracy in the Arab world as long as it fails to listen to Arab voices. Zogby makes a very compelling argument why Washington indeed struggles to support and nurture democracy in the region. The question is now whether any other outside powers can achieve what the US cannot?

Zogby is absolutely right that the American image of “the land of the free” is smeared by Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Graib, Guantanamo and other endemic human rights abuses disguised under the banner of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. In addition, unwavering support for Israel and her protracted occupation and colonisation policies has rendered the US incapable of championing freedom and democracy.

Support for President Barack Obama in the Arab world is virtually non-existent. Last year, the Arab American Institute polled Arabs across the region. The results were crystal clear: from Morocco to UAE, support for Obama’s policies never topped a mere ten per cent.

These factors lead to Zogby’s conclusion that “American involvement in democracy promotion is not wanted or seen as credible.” And he is right. But can other powers take over the role of US or should the rest of the world stay out of the extensive political liberalisation process that will define the Middle East in the decade to come.

Opposed to the US, Europe has largely stayed true to its democratic values. Our terrorists, such as Anders Breivik, are put on trial in a civilian court instead of being tortured in foreign prisons and put on trial in military court. We do not start pre-emptive wars miles away from our bed, based on lies sold to the UNSC as undisputable facts. Granted, we have been too eager to support America’s wars and should have been more critical of its policies related to the War on Terror.

In addition, Europe tends to take a less biased stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The EU is more critical of the occupation of Palestinian land and monitors and condemns issues such as the structural violence by the Israeli settlers in the West Bank. In doing so, Europe seeks to build on international law and UN resolutions as the basis for peace talks instead of narrow-minded “geostrategic interests”.

Europe certainly is not flawless. But it has close ties culturally and historically with much of the Middle East. Our regions have traded goods, languages and traditions for centuries. Also politically there is clear overlap. Europe freed itself from its oppressive monarchs, dictatorships and devastating wars. A transition that has not been achieved overnight, but took decades instead. The Middle East too faces the challenge to defeat absolute rulers – both presidents and monarchs – and stop the looming prospects of regional war.

One could even argue that the uprisings in the Middle East are like Europe’s “Bastille moment”, knocking at the gates of dictatorship and oppression. The Arab age of enlightenment has started and deserves global support.

These shared experiences holds potential for increased cooperation. Unlike the US, Europe should be better able to grasp the issues at stake in the Middle East and understand the legitimate concerns of the Arab people. So if there is a need for any form of outside involvement in democracy promotion in the Middle East, then surely it should be done by European states?

This question should be asked more frequently in both regions. Could Europe assist with promoting democracy? And, if the answer is “yes”, how? Should European political parties train grassroots movements and human rights advocates in the Middle East in how to effectively set-up a political party and mobilise their constituency? Should Europe’s politicians put pressure on Arab leaders to open up for free press and civil society movements? And could the EU take up the role of the “honest broker” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so clearly lacking?

Instead of discussing America’s failed policies in the Middle East, we could do better to discuss if there is potential for increasing cooperation between Europe and the Arab world. Unlike the US, we are less inclined to exert suffocating control over the region, for our own energy needs and close ties with Israel. Therefore, if Arab countries ever need assistance, please come and talk to us. We are eager to help out — and not just for oil and control.

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