If this is young Arabs' 1989, Europe must be ready with a bold response
What happens across the Mediterranean matters more to the EU than the US. Yet so far its voice has been inaudible
Europe's future is at stake this week on Cairo's Tahrir Square, as it was on Prague's Wenceslas Square in 1989. This time, the reasons are geography and demography. The Arab arc of crisis, from Morocco to Jordan, is Europe's near abroad. As a result of decades of migration, the young Arabs whom you see chanting angrily on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Amman already have cousins in Madrid, Paris and London.
If these uprisings succeed, and what emerges is not another Islamist dictatorship, these young, often unemployed, frustrated men and women will see life chances at home. The gulf between their life experience in Casablanca and Madrid, Tunis and Paris, will gradually diminish – and with it that cultural cognitive dissonance which can lead to the Moroccan suicide bomber on a Madrid commuter train. As their homelands modernise, young Arabs – and nearly one third of the population of the north African littoral is between the age of 15 and 30 – will circulate across the Mediterranean, contributing to European economies, and to paying the pensions of rapidly ageing European societies. The examples of modernisation and reform will also resonate across the Islamic world.
If these risings fail, and the Arab world sinks back into a slough of autocracy, then tens of millions of these young men and women will carry their pathologies of frustration across the sea, shaking Europe to its foundations. If the risings succeed in deposing the latest round of tyrants, but violent, illiberal Islamist forces gain the upper hand in some of those countries, producing so many new Irans, then heaven help us all. Such are the stakes. If that does not add up to a vital European interest, I don't know what does.
Is this the Arab 1989? We have the same sense of events leaping from country to country, and of many ordinary people spontaneously standing up to say "enough is enough". There is, however, so far little sign of the social self-organisation, led by democratic opposition movements and civil society groups, which in 1989 sustained non-violent discipline, even in the face of provocation, and paved the way to a transition negotiated at round tables.
The trades unions in Tunisia have played a significant part. In Egypt, there is Mohamed ElBaradei, with his National Association for Change, and the once imprisoned opposition leader Ayman Nour, but no effective popular front, civic forum or other large-scale structure has emerged. In Tuesday's large demonstration in Tahrir Square, there were encouraging signs of civic self-organisation. Today, however, they seem to have responded chaotically to violent attacks by pro-Mubarak demonstrators.
For all the mobilising power of the internet and social media, this question of political organisation is crucial. That is why Israelis warn that the right analogy is not with Europe in 1989 but with Iran in 1979. A broad popular uprising, with many secular and leftist elements, is taken over by the Islamists – because they are better organised. The fact that Arab dictators like Hosni Mubarak have been successfully blackmailing the west with this Islamist spectre for 30 years does not mean it does not exist. But you can understand the frustration of Arab democrats who encounter this as the west's first reaction to their once-in-a-lifetime hope of liberation. "This is an Allahu-Akbar-free revolution," protests the Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda.
Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow – let alone next month or year. Policymakers and long-distance pundits are to revolutions like pedestrians in city shoes following a muddy, hectic steeplechase. They puff along behind. What we need are people on the spot who speak the language, know the history, have been there repeatedly over a number of years, and can evaluate the main players and social forces. The fact that there are so few such correspondents and experts around is proof of Europe's indifference to its own backyard. There are probably more European experts on the politics of California than there are on those of Egypt, let alone of Tunisia or Morocco.
Politically, Europe's reaction has so far been embarrassed silence, followed by very cautious encouragement of peaceful change – as in the statement produced by EU foreign ministers on Monday. Having for decades propped up and worked with the Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, France now joins in EU sanctions on him and his family. Oh, so you just found out he's a bad guy? The so-called Union for the Mediterranean has been totally irrelevant. Unlike US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, has been invisible.
Yes, Washington too reacted first with embarrassed silence and then with weasel-worded encouragement of peaceful change. But at least people noticed its confusion. When (if) we get the next lot of WikiLeaks, we may even find that the US played some part in bringing about the Egyptian military's remarkable declaration that it will not use force against the legitimate demands of "our great people". Europe, by contrast, has had no detectable influence on the unfolding of events vital to the future of Europe.
Beyond urgently warning Arab leaders of the economic consequences of a violent crackdown, which Europeans should do through every available channel, there is little we can now do to change the immediate course of events on the ground. Too explicit western endorsement of a particular candidate or opposition movement could backfire. For today, less may be more.
Tomorrow, or the day after, it will be a different story. We in Europe should already be preparing for that day. The Egyptian protesters are very clear about what they don't want: Mubarak. Unlike those on Wenceslas Square in Prague, they have no clear or common vision of what they do want afterwards. Except, of course, that it should be better. If Egypt's new or merely transitional rulers – and those of Tunisia, and other neighbouring countries – are of the kind who would welcome help from Europe, we must be ready to give it.
No one has more experience than Europeans do in difficult transitions from dictatorship to democracy. No region has more instruments at its disposal to affect developments in the Arab Middle East. The US may have special relationships with the Egyptian military and Arab ruling families, but Europe has more trade, gives a lot of aid, and has a thick web of cultural and person-to-person ties across what the Romans called Mare Nostrum, our sea. It has 27 + 1 sets of diplomatic relations. It is the place that most young Arabs want to come – to visit, to study, to work. Their cousins are here already. That nexus is both a problem and an opportunity.
The invisible Ashton should even now be putting together a task force of the new European external action service to work out responses to all the likely interim outcomes in Egypt, Tunisia and wherever else Arabs set out to reclaim ownership of their own destiny. She must identify and work with the national leaders, certainly including those of Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, who have the most direct interest in such an initiative. The EU needs speed, flexibility, boldness, imagination – none of them qualities with which this slow-moving multinational club is traditionally associated. Let Europe prove that by acting boldly abroad it can shape its own future at home.