US-EU: Do Not Forget About Arab Democracy

Ukraine and Russia dominated the EU-US Summit in Brussels today, followed by the original top priority items of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and surveillance by the National Security Agency. But missing from the agenda was another issue that needs high-level transatlantic attention: the worrisome situation in the Arab transitioning countries, namely, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. While these countries may not seem to present an immediate crisis, the failure of successful democratic transitions there will have a direct, negative impact on European and US interests. The only way they can achieve lasting security and stability—what ultimately matters the most to Europe and the United States—is through the development of democratic systems.

Admittedly, it is a difficult moment for the United States and Europe to rededicate themselves to this goal. After spending a week talking with EU and European officials in Brussels, Rome, Paris and London, it was abundantly clear to us that European policymakers are just as distressed and feel just as resigned to the troubled fate of the countries as their US counterparts. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is also a consensus regarding the current status of these countries: Tunisia is moving along on the right track, but its gains are still tenuous; Libya is a security nightmare and lacks institutions, interlocutors, and indigenous plans to stem the country’s deteriorating security; Egypt is witnessing a dangerous authoritarian retrenchment; persistent violence in Yemen threatens even the modest gains from its National Dialogue process.

Given its geographic proximity, Europe has no choice but to engage closely with these countries to address security threats emanating from them—including illegal migration, smuggling, weapons trafficking, and extremist activity. Sitting far away on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States feels it has a bit more breathing room than Europe.  But because of the continuing geopolitical importance of the Middle East and of transnational jihadi threats, critical US interests still hang in the balance, even with America’s increasing energy self-reliance. In the immediate wake of the Arab uprisings the United States and Europe had expressed a newfound acknowledgement that security and democratic development are indeed inextricably linked, yet the difficulty of democratization in the region in the past three years has caused many to question this conclusion now. This would be a mistake; we should not need to learn the lesson twice in fewer than five years that governments that fail to respond to the needs of their citizens or develop inclusive institutions become breeding ground for instability and discontent that spills over borders.

At the same time, the US and European response to the transitions should not be only about mitigating dangers. The strategic EU-US partnership, as affirmed prior to the summit, is fundamentally based on shared values including “a commitment to uphold the fundamental rights and freedoms of our citizens, belief in open and accountable government and in a fair and effective market economy.” To date, the US and EU have failed to leverage effectively their unique values-centered strategic partnership to support the difficult process of change from authoritarianism to democratic governance in these Arab countries. To the extent that they have offered help, the United States and EU have been far more focused on economic support, and far less on building democratic institutions and defending basic freedoms. While getting the economic piece of puzzle right is essential for the success of these countries, this cannot be pursued divorced from establishing responsive, inclusive political systems that uphold the rule of law and respects the rights of all its citizens.  

The reality is that over the past three years, the United States and its European allies have not even attempted serious close transatlantic cooperation on this goal, sometimes appearing to shrink further away from robust support for transatlantic values when democratization is most threatened. At the last US-EU summit, in November 2011,  the joint statement mentioned the “historic opportunity for successful democratic reform in the Arab world” and pledged that Washington and Brussels would “support the democratic transitions underway” in the region. But even then, the commitment was modest in proportion to the importance of the historic opportunity.  Due to the turbulence in the transitioning countries and to their own political and bureaucratic obstacles, the United States and Europe have had difficulty delivering even on their original promises. The flagship Deauville Partnership, launched by the G-8 in May 2011, was meant to encourage donor assistance for the Arab countries in transition, but it was never conceived as a lasting platform for coordinated strategic action, and it prioritized economic issues at the expense of needed multilateral attention to political reform.

Faced with the rising influence of wealthy Gulf donors and with eroding confidence that the United States and Europe have something of value to offer, there is great deal of hand-wringing and resignation about waning leverage to encourage political, security, and economic reforms across the Arab countries in transition. In part, the reduced influence is due to collective bureaucratic fatigue after three tumultuous and disappointing years and to insufficient financial resources, as well as to difficult conditions in the transitioning countries. But it is also due to the absence of political will on the US and European side, and growing doubts about prospects for and the importance of democracy to our strategic interests. A central problem is that we have not prioritized successful democratic outcomes in these countries, and thus we have not been able to put in place the diplomatic strategies, policies, and programs to advance such an objective.

Better donor coordination is a piece of the puzzle, but is not the lynchpin. What is needed is a strategic transatlantic dialogue that honestly probes some of the deeper questions facing these countries’ transition processes and the US and European role. On Egypt, we should be asking, how are we going to relate to the actual Egypt that is emerging, a country with a military-backed authoritarian system and a growing Islamist insurgency, and how will we avoid repeating our acknowledged mistakes in downplaying repression during the Mubarak era? On Tunisia, we should ask whether we are truly doing all we can to help this fragile democratic process stay on track, reward Tunisia for its progress thus far, and showcase its consensus-oriented approach as an example for the region? On Libya, the key question is how to leverage US, EU, European, and UN resources to support an inclusive national dialogue, prioritize adherence to a political roadmap, and help the institution-building that is inextricably linked to solving Libya’s security problems. On Yemen, we should ask how we can ensure that proceeding full-steam ahead with constitution-writing and elections does not break the country apart and what role the international community should play in addressing Southern grievances and other demands for greater autonomy.  

Economic support, while not the silver-bullet solution to troubled transitions that some US and European officials seem to hope these days, remains important.  Thus high-level transatlantic dialogue on the transitions should also take a hard look at the complexity of deep economic reform, the kind of technical assistance that the US and Europe alone can offer and that Gulf countries cannot, and whether our aid programs have been effective in addressing the  priority issue of creating jobs for young Arabs. The international financial institutions play a critical role, but macro-level reforms are only one part of the equation and EU and US and other bilateral programs should continue in parallel. A serious transatlantic dialogue would move beyond information-sharing and on-the-ground collaboration to identify areas where a more strategic level of coordination would amplify impact.

Safeguarding Ukraine and confronting a newly aggressive Russia rightly will take center stage in the transatlantic relationship for the foreseeable future. But the United States and Europe cannot afford to let the Arab transitions, and our joint response, fall any further down the priority list.  Otherwise, in a few years, we may find ourselves confronting far more acute political and security crises in the region, ones that compare with the geopolitical nightmare underway in Ukraine. 

Danya Greenfield is the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She leads the Yemen Policy Initiative and writes extensively on Yemen, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as US assistance to the Arab world. Amy Hawthorne is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is a Middle East expert with extensive policy, analytical, and practical experience on Arab political reform and democracy promotion.

Image: Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission with US President Barack Obama at the EU-US Summit, March 26, 2014. (Photo: European Council)