On Friday, the thirty-year-long rule of Hosni Mubarak’s regime came to a close after days of popular demonstrations in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. This followed the demise of Tunisia’s regime in January. To some extent – as Daniel Korski has argued – these popular uprisings have vindicated the neo-conservative strategists in the United States, who boldly argued after the 11th September attacks that autocracy was both unpopular and heavily related to the rise of political Islam. Indeed, for many years, the European Union and its Member States, as well as the United States, have supported strongmen across the wider Middle East (including Central Asia) irrespective of the will of the people in each country. Consequentially, with all political openings closed off due to authoritarian rule, political Islam has risen as an outlet for popular resentment and frustration. The various kingdoms and dictatorships have themselves fanned this disenchantment in order to draw attention away from their own misrule and corruption. And many people in the Middle East have come to blame Europeans and Americans for their misfortune.
Political stagnation in the wider Middle East, not least its Mediterranean rimland, has particular significance for the European Union, due to the region’s close geographic proximity and growing economic linkages. Brussels must not ‘lose’ this region – much as Richard Gowan has warned it is close to doing – as it forms a barrier that separates the European Union from southern Africa and most of Eurasia. If it becomes more unpredictable and volatile, European maritime trade routes and energy transmission pipelines could be compromised. Less so than tiny Tunisia, Egypt is especially important here: firstly, because it straddles the critical Suez Canal, which carries the main maritime communication line between the European Union and Asia; secondly, due to its geopolitical location, as a lynchpin between Africa and Eurasia; thirdly, due to its bargain with Israel, which prevents a regional conflagration; and fourthly, as the most powerful Arab state, with nearly eighty million people.
Political feeling has been stirred up by the many growing links between the European Union and the wider Middle East; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the rise of the internet as a means of communication: the people around the southern and eastern sides of the Mediterranean want better, more legitimate, forms of government – like they see their northern neighbours have achieved. While it is still very unclear where either of the popular uprisings in Tunisia, and particularly Egypt, are heading, each has shown that their people are eager for political change. A number of scenarios are still possible, ranging from another repressive regime, an Islamist theocracy, or a secular liberal or social democracy (or any combination thereof).
At this late stage, Brussels may not be able to do very much in Egypt other than throw support behind secular liberal or social forces. But the same does not apply to other countries in the region. At the very least, Europeans must realise that change is on the way, whether we like it or not. So Brussels (and the Member States) must move away from the old approach, and towards a more pro-active and vigorous policy that aims to shape the southern and eastern Mediterranean more in line with our preferences. As exemplars of constitutional rule, Europeans should redouble their efforts to work with all movements that want better government in their own countries, even if this means downplaying the effort given to the direct alleviation of poverty. In any case, the latter depends on the former: the growth of liberal or social democracy should lead to more open societies, which means Europeans will be able to trade with them more efficiently, creating a virtuous circle of improvement and advancement.
The European Union must therefore make the expansion of constitutional government – including democracy – an intrinsic component of its foreign, security and development policies. Both the European Security Strategy and the Neighbourhood Policy aim to promote a ‘ring of well-governed countries’ around the European homeland. It is time to pursue these strategies with renewed vigour. Constitutional democracy is the antidote to political extremism, particularly in the longer term. This means that Brussels should act as a careful midwife to all nascent secular, liberal and democratic forces, while acting simultaneously as a skilful surgeon to cut out cancerous growths of political Islam – through closer European intelligence cooperation and policing. The High Representative should also be more vocal in calling for political reform, particularly in countries of strategic significance.
There is one final issue to hand here: the rise of multipolarity. If the people in surrounding countries see that Europeans are actively aiding their oppression by supporting strongmen, they will become increasingly alienated from our interests and values, thereby becoming more susceptible to political Islam – from Iran. Equally, having seen how Europeans and Americans turned so quickly against Mubarak when they recognised that he no longer served their interests, the remaining regimes will probably look for an insurance policy by turning to other countries eager to gain a foothold in the region – like China and Russia. Autocratic and distant, neither Moscow nor Beijing have any interest in progressive political reform. It is unlikely that Middle Eastern societies, if alienated from European ideals, and in cahoots with powerful and distant foreign autocracies, are going to be very friendly. After Egypt, the European Union needs to pursue a new geopolitics of democracy; without it, the writing for its policy in the southern neighbourhood may be well and truly on the wall.
[UPDATE – 17th February 2011: For an excellent piece of analysis on the domestic wrangling inside the Egyptian regime – especially between the political and military constituencies – and its role in the revolution, see Stratfor.]
• Image credit: Mona Sosh.