Katherine Butler: Europe's betrayal of the Arab awakening

International Studies
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The Independent Online

Statler and Waldorf were the two characters in The Muppet Show who used to sit in the balcony of the theatre making old-man comments that contradicted each other and showed they had picked up the wrong end of the stick about what was happening on stage. That's Europe, with its cacophony of statements and voices, over the tumult in the Arab world, according to Martin Schulz, leader of the centre-left in the European Parliament. Unfortunately for the people of Egypt, Europe's conduct is even less helpful than The Muppet Show, and it's not just the inability to speak with a single voice that is the problem.

As the shockwaves from events in its Mediterranean backyard have reverberated, reaction in Europe has gone through a number of phases. None of it has been edifying and all of it adds up to a lost opportunity. First there was a mortifying silence: during which, presumably, a stampede took place to take down the photos of warm handshakes with the now discredited Ben Ali and Mubarak; the free holidays courtesy of the same dictators to Carthage and Sharm el Sheikh had to be explained, to say nothing of the red faces over offers of French riot police to quell the demonstrations in Tunis.

After that came confusion over what kind of outcome "we" in Europe wanted. Some, including David Cameron, blamed Baroness Ashton, the EU's media-shy foreign policy "Czarina", for promoting a mealy-mouthed response. This is somewhat unfair, since it was the decision of the most powerful EU governments that her job description was a compromise, a fudge and should never impinge on their national sovereignty.

Eventually an unsatisfactory joint statement came at last weekend's summit of EU leaders. It demanded an "orderly transition" but, to the UK's displeasure, made no mention of Mubarak. Publicly, the line (although Silvio Berlusconi didn't get the memo) is that Egyptians must be respected to determine their own future and their own path to democracy. It is not up to anyone in the West to try to influence anything other than a peaceful outcome.

Privately, the tone from some leading European nations has been more depressingly post-colonial. Implicitly, what is being said is that Egyptians ought to determine their own future as long as they don't vote the Muslim Brotherhood into power. Fear that the Egyptian state will collapse and that Islamic extremists will sweep in to fill the vacuum is intense, especially in the Mediterranean EU states. Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, even said there was a danger Egypt was poised to enter a "new Middle Ages".

This panic has now solidified into a desperate behind-the-scenes determination to shore up what amounts to the ancien regime in Cairo – even if Hosni Mubarak is bundled off to a clinic in Germany sooner than he would like – and thus to contain the revolution. Some EU foreign ministers have been on the phone offering support to Omar Suleiman, the vice-president, while urging him to offer concessions to the opposition. What this tells us is that he is clearly the man they trust to see off what they think is the threat. Yet Suleiman, Mubarak's former intelligence chief, is the man many Egyptians fear is busy stealing the revolution with his dark warnings of Egyptians not being "ready for democracy". An Iran-style crackdown on the streets is not implausible if the protesters don't fall into line and go home soon.

European governments have for years been as cosy with unsavoury governments in the Middle East as the Americans have, not just because they are pro-Western, and have done our governments' bidding on counter-terrorism, but because it made economic sense to open them up to free trade. Just weeks before the Tunisian uprising, EU negotiators were finessing an advanced "partnership" agreement with Ben Ali's government, a deal which confers millions in aid plus many of the trade benefits of EU membership but without any of the political obligations.

If only Europe had instead carved out a distinctive political voice from that of the US, using its trade clout to insist on respect for human rights and the rule of law while helping civil society groups which might now be capable of delivering strong secular opposition leadership. Now, suddenly, there is talk of a new EU "instrument" to provide funds, technical and legal support to help Egypt stage free elections by September at the latest. Democratic Europe has been expanding to the East, goes the new argument, why not expand its umbrella across the Mediterranean. Why indeed, and why is this a new idea?

The much-maligned Baroness Ashton is apparently anxious to go to Tahrir Square soon. She can certainly do so anonymously, since few members of the public in Europe, let alone the Arab world, know who she is, and she may actually have some productive conversations as a result. Perhaps she will gain a sense of just how much Egyptians aspire to no more than the rule of law and the same kinds of freedoms that European citizens can take for granted thanks to EU membership.

That European governments act in their own self-interest is not surprising. Mayhem fanning out from cities that are barely a time zone away is troubling. But it is even less in Europe's interest to help perpetuate a regime that has no legitimacy, other than in Israel and among the autocracies of the Gulf. If Europe is even perceived to have helped sustain tyranny, albeit with a veneer of constitutional reform, then the temporary "stability" gained will be a hollow victory. The treachery could go a long way to radicalising many of the unemployed young people who have taken the risk of demanding a democratic process for themselves.

k.butler@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/butlerkatherine