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Opinion: Europe at a loss to promote democracy in Arab world

Waves of protests have spread from Tunisia and Egypt throughout the Arab world. With the outcomes in countries like Libya and Yemen quite unsure, DW's Rainer Sollich says Europe has been reduced to a mere spectator.

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What was for decades unthinkable has suddenly become reality: People in the Arab world no longer fear their rulers. They are fighting fearlessly for their rights, braving brutal repression and bloody massacres as we are witnessing now in Libya.

The spirit of revolution born out of Tunisia and Egypt is sweeping across more and more countries at breathtaking speed. Visions of a brighter future seem within reach across North Africa and the Middle East, where people are beginning to believe they are the masters of their own destiny.

While history is being made in North Africa and the Middle East, the regions' neighbor Europe has been reduced to a mere spectator. It's no surprise that Europe is baffled as to how to react. Freedom and democracy are the European Union's most precious values. And yet, economic and pragmatic considerations have long led the EU to cooperate with autocratic rulers.

The unjust regime of Moammar Gadhafi, where the military and police turn and shoot on their own people, is the same regime that ensures EU countries are not overwhelmed with illegal immigrants.

Rainer Sollich

Rainer Sollich is the head of DW's Arabic Service

And the country's oil deliveries help keep Europe warm in winter and fill Europe's thirsty car tanks.

Until now, Europe has been hesitant to take a stance against dictators in Libya and other countries, as there is no guarantee who would step up to replace them. Would pro-democracy activists take the lead? Or would power fall into the same hands that just five years ago set fire to European consulates in protest of Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Then there remains the question: are there even clear divisions between the two camps?

The answer is: No, there aren't. The protest movements are every bit as complex and multilayered as Arab societies themselves.

All the current protests in the Arab world are targeted against despotism; all of them call for democratic rule. But some of the protests are also mixed up in interreligious conflicts and would-be tyrants. Meanwhile, protests are coming not only liberal activists from the big cities, but also from nationalists and Islamists - as well as day laborers and frustrated small-town youths with no real political agenda. Attempting to apply categories such as pro- and anti-West here only confuses matters.

How the protests will end is anyone's guess, and the outcome can hardly be influenced from the outside world.

Europe's aspiration of promoting democracy among its neighbors remains the right path – albeit a narrow one: Not only tyrants, but also many pro-democratic activists have clearly expressed their abhorrence of international interference.

If Europe is to exercise any influence, it must first gain its neighbors' trust, and that can only be accomplished by lending support that tangibly benefits the people - especially in those countries that have already chased out their tyrants and must now give new shape to their whole societies.

Author: Rainer Sollich / dl

Editor: Andreas Illmer

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