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'Europe must demand commitment to democracy'

Critics have accused European politicians of lacking credibility for supporting Hosni Mubarak's regime. But what can foreign policy actually achieve? DW's Fabian Schmidt talked to Christian Democrat Ruprecht Polenz.

Ruprecht Polenz

Polenz says the EU should push for democracy in Egypt, Tunisia

Ruprecht Polenz is the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, and a member of parliament for the conservative Christian Democrats.

Deutsche Welle: The dramatic events in Egypt and Tunisia in the last month have shown once again that foreign policy is always about compromise. Just a small minority worldwide enjoys freedom and democracy, and Western democracies have to decide how they deal with undemocratic regimes. Why is it so hard for politicians to find the right methods in these situations?

Ruprecht Polenz: We're always treading a fine line between ideals and interests. Naturally, our democracies have a duty to promote democratic values. But, of course, there are many countries that have a different makeup, authoritarian and sometimes dictatorial. But we have to maintain contact with those kinds of countries too. You have to make sure that you emphasize what sort of values you stand for and how you plan on spreading them.

Politicians are often accused of double standards, for example with regards to Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been threatened with sanctions because of electoral fraud. But in Egypt, Western nations supported Mubarak's regime for years, despite it being undemocratic too. Why?

You have to look at each country individually. In Egypt's case, I don't think you can compare Mubarak's first 15 years in power with the situation we have today in Belarus. Mubarak had a lot of support from the Egyptian people to begin with. Then, the government gradually took control and the people's ability to take part in the political process was curbed, which culminated in last November's rigged elections.

How important are economic interests? Are politicians too cynical when it comes to financial policies?

In the long run, it's of course better to trade with countries that have a stable government that is accepted by the people. That usually happens in a democracy where governments can be eliminated without any bloodshed.

But it's not necessarily a contradiction to promote economic interests alongside human rights. In apartheid South Africa we saw that companies who didn't religiously stick to the rules helped bring about change. So, businesses can have a positive influence if you don't lose sight of your objectives.

One of the reasons the West supported Mubarak was the fear of an Islamist uprising. Do we have to accept the fact that, in some cases, the West only has a choice between extremism and an enlightened, albeit undemocratic, absolutism and that some countries may choose the latter?

I don't believe that's right. The longer an authoritarian regime stays in power, the more likely it is that Islamist groups get more powerful and take over. Why is that? Authoritarian regimes suppress freedom of speech, freedom of the press and political discussions.

But they can't suppress religion and so the discussions move into the mosques, not unlike the situation we had in the former East Germany, where peace and environmental movements used churches as their refuge.

And there are usually areas where totalitarian regimes fail their people, like education and a functioning benefits system. And if you look at how every Islamist movement offers schools, hospitals and nurseries to win people over, it's obvious why authoritarian regimes act like an incubator for Islamism.

That's why we shouldn't choose alternatives that really aren't alternatives at all. We should make it clear what we believe in and defend our values.

You said recently that the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to run in elections in Egypt. How does that fit in with the idea of democracy?

I have also said that every political party needs to stick to democratic rules. That's a given. And it's two things in particular we demand from the Muslim Brotherhood: Firstly, they have to renounce violence, and secondly, they have to accept the rules of democracy, even if it sometimes works against them. They have to know that they may not be reelected if that's the will of the people.

It's not a guarantee for democracy and it won't solve problems like high youth unemployment and other problems with the economy and education. But banning the Brotherhood is far more risky, I think.

So far, Islamists have rightly blamed the regime for those shortcomings. If we don't integrate them into the political process they will, in future, blame democracy instead and insist that Islam is the way forward. That's the real danger I believe.

Could the Turkish AK Party be a role model for the integration of Islamist movements in the Maghreb?

I think it's definitely interesting how the Tunisian opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi, who previously said he saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as his role models, now says he doesn't want to be pushed into the Iranian corner. He insists his role model is the AK Party. Whether that's reliable remains to be seen.

Is the newly-founded European Foreign Affairs service doing enough to meet that challenge?

The common foreign affairs service is still in its infancy, so you can't expect a lot at the moment. But the European Union, in particular the German chancellor, the British prime minister and the French president, has made it very clear what should happen in this transitional phase in Egypt.

Egypt is the second-biggest recipient of German development funds and I believe we should keep up the payments and, at the same time, use that aid to exert our influence, to enable Egypt to develop into a more democratic state.

But we should not forget that many Arab nations see the West as supporters of an authoritarian regime. So we should be prepared for uncomfortable questions that can't be avoided.

What's important is that we stress how important good relations with Europe are for countries like Egypt. Hopefully that will lead to more stability in the Middle East and it's important for us how these countries relate to Israel too.

Interview: Fabian Schmidt / ng
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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