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Middle East disillusionment

Bettina Marx / cmk
November 12, 2012

Syria is caught up in a civil war, Islamists are in power in Cairo and Tunis, Turkey is caught between fronts and the Mideast peace process is stalled. What to make of the region two years after the Arab Spring?

A protester gestures during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Dec. 30, 2011. Several Egyptian rights groups on Friday accused the country's ruling military council of using "repressive tools" of the deposed regime in waging an "unprecedented campaign" against pro-democracy organizations. The groups' joint statement came just hours after security forces stormed offices of 10 rights organizations, including several based in the United States. The Interior Ministry said the raids were part of the investigation into foreign funding of rights groups.(Foto:Ahmed Ali/AP/dapd)
Ägypten Demonstration auf Tahrir Platz in KairoImage: dapd

The euphoria over the fall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is gone. The bloody civil war drags on in Syria, as a horrified public and helpless politicians stand by. And the persistent and massive repression of the opposition in Bahrain has nearly disappeared from the headlines.

Nevertheless, Andreas Reinicke, the EU's Special Representative for the Middle East, remains optimistic. "I am convinced that the Arab world will develop in the direction of more openness and freedom," he said, though conceding that one must remain realistic. "I think we will have to think in decades, rather than in years," said Reinicke, adding that Europeans should remain patient and positive.

The new conditions have led to power shifts in the region: Syria has lost its leading position, while Egypt appears to be regaining its usual role as Arab leader

End of an era

According to Soli Özel, a Turkish economist and political scientist living in Istanbul, the upheaval in the Middle East marks the end of the post-Ottoman system, a political world view created by Britain and France.

Andreas Reinicke (picture: Tim Brakemeier)
The Arab world is headed for more openness and freedom, Reinicke saidImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"It's never fun to witness the collapse of an empire," said Özel. "It's too bloody and terrible." He said the post-Ottoman system relied on Sunni domination, a model that was shaken by the first Gulf War and the creation of the Kurdish security zone in northern Iraq.

Kurdish nationalism is now on the rise and Sunni domination has been surpassed by the rise of Shiite Islam, with ethnic and religious minorities splintering off all over the place. This process is most evident in Syria, where the peaceful uprising of opposition groups against the dictatorship has become a multi-ethnic civil war.

Throughout the Middle East and North African region, there are really only four countries that are reasonably stable: Iran, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. Only one of these countries, Egypt, is almost entirely Sunni. But even these four states have been rocked by internal and external conflicts.

Can Turkey provide a model for how Islam and democracy can work together?Image: Fotolia/Jan Schuler

Model country: Turkey?

Set against these dramatic upheavals, Turkey has gained greater importance in the region. "Whenever the West is in trouble, it calls for Turkey," said Özel. The secular state, a NATO member, is expected to serve as a model for the post-revolutionary Arab states with their new Islamist governments.

"One of the reasons why, in the last 30 years, we didn't see any transition to democracy in the Arab World is that we only had Iran as a model," said Radwan Masmoudi, the Tunisian founder and president of the Center of the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based non-profit organization.

This model has not succeeded, and now Turkey offers a new direction. Even though it may not be perfect, it could show the people of Tunisia and Egypt how to combine Islam and democracy, and even Islam and secularism.

But Binnaz Toprak, a member of the European Parliament for the social democratic Turkish opposition party CHP, recommends exercising caution in using Turkey as a model. She says the country is not a liberal democracy in the Western sense.

According to Toprak, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic party AKP Turkey has become a one-party state in which the Alevi minority are suppressed and excluded and only party members can find jobs. Democratic rights have been terminated, the media has been silenced and the legal system has been eroded. Instead, Turkey shows that Islamic parties are able to take power through democratic elections, and then take advantage of their power to destroy democracy.

Demonstrators on Tahrir square
The protests on Cairo's Tahrir square led the downfall of dictator MoubarakImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The EU's role

Along with Turkey, the European Union has also been directly affected by the developments in the Middle East and North Africa. "The Middle East is not out there," said Özel. "It's here. It belongs to Europe."

Annegret Bendiek of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs warns against high expectations of the European Union. The EU's associated partnership program was designed to help 16 neighboring countries from Belarus to the Caucasus, the Middle East and northern Africa, Bendiek explained. The goal had to be to create a region of stability, security and prosperity. But the EU was quickly reaching its political and financial limits, not least because of differing interests among its own member states. Bendiek says the ubiquitous idea of a Marshall plan for the Middle East is something that could only ever work with the support of the wealthy Arab monarchies.

Burned out houses in Damascus (picture: AFP/Getty Images)
The Syrian civil war has already destroyed much of the countryImage: AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian Human Rights activist Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch in Cairo strongly criticized the EU's policy on the Arab world. She condemned the long-standing cooperation between Europe and the now fallen dictators in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. "The EU has no human rights policy," Morayef judged. She says in future the European Union should only commit to achieving human rights goals in writing if Brussels was prepared to work toward actually reaching those targets.

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