by the stormy present
Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 10:04:41 AM EST
So Timothy Garton Ash came to town recently, and it seems that he thinks Europe needs to do something about Egypt.
Condi's rock'n'roll approach has been and gone. Let's try Benita's slow waltz
In Egypt the US has retreated from its push for democracy in the Arab world. Europe should step into the breach
In a poor quarter of Cairo, down narrow dirt roads in which goats feed on scraps, I am taken to the bare, crowded but carefully kept apartment of a friendly greengrocer, whose extended family sleeps four or five to a room. He introduces me to his numerous nieces and nephews, and finally to a grinning tousle-haired boy called Usama. Usama is three years old, so our conversation is not extensive, but he has stuck in my mind ever since.
One way of thinking about the future of the Arab world, and what we in more fortunate parts might do to influence it, is to ask where the little bright-eyed Usama of Rod el-Farag will be in 20 years' time. Will he have enough to eat? An education? A job? Will he have become a militant activist of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned, shadowy but popular rival to the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak? And if he has, what will it mean by then to be a Muslim Brother? Or will he, despairing of his prospects at home in Egypt, be trying to smuggle himself across the Mediterranean as an illegal immigrant to Italy, in one of many waves of boat people met with hostility by radicalised, increasingly xenophobic and anti-Muslim European societies?
More after the jump.
The answer to this question will depend mainly on the Egyptians themselves - and on choices made by people across the Arab lands. You cannot pass many hours here without encountering the unshakable conspiratorial conviction that the west is to blame for everything that is wrong in the Middle East (starting with Israel). The truth is that Usama's future, and that of the more than 400 million mainly young Arabs who are likely to be around in 20 years' time, is 80% up to the governments and people here and only 20% up to all the powers outside.
... at which point I stopped and asked myself, does he have some sort of algorithm for figuring out precisely what percentage of responsibility lies where? Someone needs to fill me in on these things. But I digress....
But still it's worth asking how the region's two main western partners, the US and the EU, can best use the limited influence we do have to encourage desirable change in a country like Egypt.
One American approach has been tried by the Bush administration over the past three years, and has already failed. A longer-term European approach is about to start next week, with the endorsement of an EU-Egypt Action Plan within the framework of what is called the European Neighbourhood Policy.
He then goes into a fairly concise synopsis of America's failed-then-abandoned "push for democracy in Egypt," a push that few people I know here ever really believed was terribly genuine, and which is now firmly in the dustbin.
Enter, stage left, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European commissioner for external relations and neighbourhood policy, dressed all in white (so far as I can tell from the photograph in the Egyptian Mail) and bearing not a clarion call for democracy but a 40-page bureaucratic document entitled EU-Egypt Joint Action Plan, full of seemingly anodyne statements of good intentions and covering almost every aspect of EU-Egypt relations. The contrast in styles is total. But might Benita and the EU succeed where Condi and the US failed? Or at least, might they do a little better?
As well as helping the Egyptian government along the path of economic reform, down which it is already energetically marching, are they prepared to ask the hard questions about specific human rights cases?
The danger is that this will remain just a paper facade, behind which 27 European governments will go on pursuing their own national and commercial interests, while Eurocrats concentrate on purely technocratic issues.
He concludes by answering the question with which he began -- will Europe's "different approach" be any more effective than America's? His answer is something like this: probably not, but we should try anyway.
More on that in a second. But first, a little story of my own.
Last year, I was browsing in a bookstore when I ran into a casual acquaintance, a rather odd European woman I only vaguely know, who was accompanied by two visiting EU officials who were spending a couple of weeks in Cairo on some kind of EU project related to European development aid, I don't remember exactly what it was now.
So I started chatting with one of these EU guys, who had some pretty interesting things to say.
First, so you can understand the context in which this conversation took place, you need to know this: At the time, the US Congress was in one of its occasional fits of go-nowhere angst over the renewal of the massive US economic and military aid package that Egypt gets every year, to the tune of $2 billion. (You can call that the price of a peace deal with Israel.)
Every time the aid package comes up for renewal, there's this handwringing in Congress over Egypt's lack of democracy, lack of freedom, lack of everything. And every time the package comes up for renewal, it gets renewed. Period. They moan about it, and then keep shoveling over the cash and military assistance.
What I'd ask myself if I were Congress is, if a country is getting upwards of $2 billion from us every year, and the gigantic revenues from the Suez Canal, plus even more gigantic tourism revenues, plus some income from modest oil and natural gas reserves... why the hell are there still so many poor people there?! A country with resources like Egypt should not be poor. A country with so many poor people should not have such rich leaders. But whatever, I'm not in Congress, and I digress.
So anyway, that's what was going on in the States when I met this EU guy at the bookstore. Over a cup of coffee or two, he started explaining how frustrated and angry he was getting over the blatant corruption and inefficiency he was finding practically everywhere he looked in Egypt. He seemed somewhat surprised, as if nobody had warned him how broken this place is.
And he was really mad, because he said Egypt was a major recipient of European aid. Not as much as America gives, but still, a lot.
So I asked him if Europe was engaged in the same kind of debate and hand-wringing over that aid that Congress was then engaged in, and he raised his eyebrows, leaned forward and sort of stage-whispered: No! Nothing! Not a word.
Which is why this comment from Issandr at The Arabist got my attention:
Timothy Garton Ash has an op-ed on Egypt in which he contrasts EU and US policies for democracy promotion. I think the difference between the two is while the US has a democracy promotion policy that systematically loses out to its imperial policy and domestic interests (big oil, Israel, etc.), the EU is even more morally bankrupt in that it does not have a democracy promotion policy at all. In fact, it barely has the guts to have any kind of foreign and security policy at all. The history of EU policy (not individual states) towards the Middle East in the past 15 years is the history of a failure, the failure of the Barcelona Process. It's risible, really. But I don't care much about democracy promotion as a concept, frankly (recent years have left a bad taste in my mouth), and think that European states' policy towards the Middle East essentially take place in a transatlantic context, not in terms of direct bilateral relations between European and Arab states.
So anyway, back to Mr. Garton Ash. He thinks Europe's approach probably won't work any better than America's, but you should try anyway.
Speaking only for myself, I would really like it if somebody would come up with an idea that might actually work. As the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. And there are no A's for effort in the real world.
Because things here are really bad, and not getting better. As an excellent recent NYT article made clear, nobody here really expects the government to do anything for them:
Cairo is home to 15 million and often described as the center of the Arab world, an incubator of culture and ideas. But it is also a collection of villages, a ruralized metropolis where people live by their wits and devices, cut off from the authorities, the law and often each other.
That social reality does not just speak to the quality and style of life for millions of Egyptians. It also plays a role in the nation's style of governance.
The fisherman on the Nile, the shepherd in the road and residents of so-called informal communities say their experiences navigating city life have taught them the same lessons: the government is not there to better their lives; advancement is based on connections and bribes; the central authority is at best a benign force to be avoided.
"Everything is from God," said Mr. Mezar, the fisherman, who was speaking practically, not theologically. "There is no such thing as government. The government is one thing, and we are something else. What am I going to get from the government?"
So back to my question for those who keep giving this country money: If a "friendly" government has proven, for the last however-many decades, that is has absolutely no interest in doing anything that will actually improve the lives of its people, and if said government appears interested in two things, (a) tightening the grip of the police and security forces on an ever-more-belagured population, and (b) further enriching the already-rich folks who run the place, both of which contribute directly and indisputably to the growth of terrorism (to mention only one of the negative consequences), then what the hell are you thinking?!
I hope to high heaven that the EU neighborhood policy makes some kind of difference. I hope something makes a difference.
And I have to rely on you, my European friends, to keep the pressure on your governments and multilateral institutions, to make sure that this effort doesn't become the "paper facade" that Timothy Garton Ash warns of. It's important, and everyone needs to know that. And they need to know that you're paying attention.