The transitions underway in Egypt and Tunisia and the ones that may start elsewhere soon present opportunities for European countries and the United States. After preaching for years the need for democratic transformations, Western countries are now in a position to actually support some. Recent conversations by the author with a variety of activists from the region suggest, however, that efforts to assist change will require Europe and the United States to walk a fine line between welcome support and unwelcome interference.  Arab publics and organizations are proud of the change they have brought about through their own efforts, but are also aware that they will need support, particularly financial support, to bring the transitions to a positive conclusion. The longstanding criticism of Western countries and their support for authoritarian regimes is muted at this time, but the good will could quickly dissipate if Europe and the United States were perceived as seeking to superimpose their concerns and goals on home-grown processes or to channel the transitions into patterns of the West’s own choosing.

Three issues could derail relations between Western countries and reforming regimes if they are not handled carefully:

  • How Western countries deal with new uprisings;
  • Whether Europe and the United States maintain their impartiality, supporting democratic processes without trying to choose winners and losers;
  • And whether they offer aid Arab countries want, rather than following the template of what they did elsewhere.

Dealing with New Uprising

Western countries have dealt with each successive uprising in an ad hoc manner, weighing the merits of each case before taking a stand. This is inevitable, because each country is unique in terms of the prospects for positive transformation and the dangers of chaos or collapse, and so are the interests and concerns of Western countries. The downside, however, is that Europe and the United States have failed to send a clear message about whether they truly support change in the Arab world or still cling to the delusion that the status quo implies stability.

Western countries should take a clear position and can do so without renouncing the flexibility they need in individual cases or appearing to call for the overthrow of incumbent regimes. They need to make clear that they consider peaceful protest a legitimate means for citizens to make their demands heard, that they cannot support regimes that use violence against their citizens, and that they believe that the goal of a stable Middle East can only be achieved through a program of meaningful reforms. But Western countries should not call for specific measures, and above all should not call for the removal of incumbent leaders. It is not up to them to decide whether and when a leader should step down, whether there is room for compromise, and whether a deposed leader should be brought to justice or allowed to fade into exile. These are issues that need to be resolved internally.  Conversely, within the broad framework of support for democratic transitions they must adopt, Western countries need to maintain flexibility in dealing with the individual cases. Support for transitions does not mean the automatic imposition of conditionality and even sanctions, and certainly does not imply a duty to intervene militarily when old regimes refuse to budge.

Maintaining Impartiality

One reason why Western countries have been fearful of political reform in the Arab world in the past has been the fear that democratization would lead to the rise of Islamist parties. This fear has now been intensified by the prospect of freer elections. In both Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist parties will undoubtedly participate and they are likely to receive a substantial number of votes. Any attempt by Western countries to support parties that are seen as more secular and pro-western, or worse to put pressure on governments to impose conditions on the participation of Islamist parties would be extremely counterproductive.

Europe and the United States need to accept the realities of the Arab world. First, if people are allowed to vote freely, they will do so on the basis of their personal beliefs, identities, and preferences, as people do in all countries, thus many will choose Islamist parties. Second, the world of political Islam is extremely complex and multifaceted, and it behooves the West to get to know and understand it, rather than identifying any Islamist organization as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood with radicalism, and Islamist radicalism with the Iranian revolution. Third, in all Muslim countries Islamist parties have supporters and opponents, and we should trust citizens to make their choices. By trying to influence those choices, Western countries could only create enemies for themselves without necessarily making friends on the other side.

Offering Help Countries in Transition Want, Not the Help We Think They Need

Western countries have developed a standard toolkit of democracy promotion activities and efforts are already underway to use it in Arab countries in transition. But those countries are asking for economic support, not for democracy assistance. This creates difficulties, because democracy promotion is cheap, economic support is expensive, and the financial problems of the United States and European countries guarantee that aid will be extremely limited. Yet, it is economic aid that counts.

Europe and the United States can support the democratic transitions most effectively by working with international financial institutions and Arab governments to devise economic policies that are politically defensible under the circumstances without being economically disastrous. The uprisings were rooted in economic as well as political grievances, and economic conditions are now worse in transitional countries because of the economic downturn. Imposing austerity and economic liberalization as a condition for assistance would be disastrous, but so would allowing aid-receiving countries to give in to the populist temptation of creating more unneeded government jobs and increasing food and energy subsidies. Western countries need to approach this issue with humility, because they do not have the answers yet. Burdening aid with the wrong conditionalities would make the situation worse.

The idea of imposing conditionality on assistance, including political conditionality, is enjoying renewed popularity in the West, but needs to be implemented cautiously. There is of course, the question of getting the conditions themselves right, something at which neither financial institutions nor other donors have excelled in the past. There is also a political risk involved in imposing conditionality on struggling new governments when their predecessors were given much greater leeway—even if that is not the intention, conditionality conveys a paternalistic message that the West knows better, which clashes with the protesters’ efforts to regain their own dignity. Finally, Western countries and institutions will not be the main supporters of the new governments: Arab oil producing countries will. Gulf Council Cooperation (GCC) countries are discussing a $3-6 billion package of support to Egypt in the coming year, and additional support for years to come. Realistically, Western conditionality imposed on small amounts of Western aid cannot be expected to have much impact.

What could have a positive impact on the transitions are practical steps to opening Western markets to goods and to some extent people from reforming countries. The burden here is more on Europe than on the United States, because trade with the United States is limited and migration even more so. There are undoubtedly political costs to Europe in accepting more immigrants and opening markets to agricultural products that compete with those of southern European countries at a time when they are already struggling. The debates underway in Europe at present reflect consciousness of the importance of liberalizing trade with the reforming countries and creating instruments that would allow increased labor migration; they also reflect the real political difficulty of doing so. Yet, these are the only measures that the West can take to truly help reforming countries and demonstrate that its support for democratic transitions is more than rhetorical.