“Rien” was the only entry in Louis XVI’s diary on the eve of the Fall of the Bastille. History’s greatest upheavals are often those least expected: in the recent past with the fall of the Berlin Wall and today with demands for democracy freedom and justice across the Arab world. However, the current Arab uprisings, rather than reminding of the fall of totalitarian regimes in Europe, seem instead to bring to mind the so-called “flashes” in Budapest and Prague or Warsaw, which briefly lit up the long night of Communism, omens of a revolution that was to require more time to achieve fulfilment.
And yet we are now obliged to abandon the myth of a supposed natural passiveness in Arabs, just as in the past with eastern Europeans’ attitudes toward power. Today’s uprisings are not led by citizens resigned to the omnipotence of religion and theocracy prevailing over politics. They require us to observe in a totally different manner those people on the other shore of the Mediterranean, who mobilize political creativity and material support to change history in that region of the world.
Albert Camus, whose roots were in the Mediterranean, described better than anyone else the specific human impulse to rebel, which began to appear as a rebellion against God. In Western civilizations it was the direct consequence of the value attributed to scepticism and to doubt. Until recently some believed that the Muslim tradition did not have such characteristics. Experts explained to us that in Islam (a word that means submission) there is no impulse to revolt. The Koran, writes Paul Berman, tells the story of Abraham and Isaac, but does not emphasize Abraham’s hesitations and resistance. Abraham listens to God’s orders and prepares himself to implement them. Submission is seen here as the path to social justice and harmony, in the name of an Islam considered self-sufficient and capable of being based on the extraordinary legacy of its past.
It is true that the concentration of resources in the Arab world, above all in those countries ruled by oil, confers immense power to bureaucracies, feeds corruption and induces people to protect the status quo with formidable security systems, and discourages all attempts to overturn the existing order. In Egypt, the Arab socialism promised by Nasser transformed itself into a relaxed form of capitalism that, with its corruption and pretense of democracy, encouraged uprisings in the streets.
Many of us allowed ourselves to be blinded by apparent power, by strong personalities, by order, and by distance. Instead we have seen how fast the passage has been from economic demands to political ones with a sufficiently widespread grasp of new technologies allowing access to these peoples’ protests. Perhaps we can also observe a third generation revolution through Facebook and other similar means, following those that attacked the Winter Palace in the Tsar’s Russia and then mass communications such as the radio in Imre Nagy’s Hungary.
Another even more tenacious and widespread platitude has been recently discredited; that of incompatibility between democracy and the Arab or Islamic world. On the other hand Europeans should learn from their history. At the end of the 19th century it was thought that democracy descended from ancient Anglo-Saxon customs, and would not spread beyond the borders of the British Isles. Going back even further, at times, it was said that democracy was the product of Nomad populations in the north. Others believed it was not divisible from Protestant reform and would thus never be achieved by Catholics.
Europe appears unable to perceive the need for democracy in the Middle East, even though it contributed to inventing and maintaining the dictatorships in the region. In Egypt as in Tunisia, democracy is still something to be shaped, but civil society is neither silent, nor lacking opinion. The opposition is a large galaxy of movements, which are not burning Israeli or American flags on the streets, but instead are demanding rights, transparency, and legality. It is not in the name of Allah that the crowds have filled the streets, evolving from plotting to creativity, from humiliation to action. In Egypt the army has proved to be wise and patient, not allowing itself to become involved in the repression, leaving this pointless and degrading task to the police. As from now, the idea of an Arab country open to human rights is no longer a contradiction in terms.
And of course Europe is not extraneous to such evolution. Millions of emigrants bring Western ideas and values to relatives and friends who remained in their countries of origin, where urbanization and mass education has resulted in the appearance and growth of a middle class that considers national traditions compatible with civil liberties.
It is also true that exporting democracy to non-Western contexts has often consisted in the introduction of the finished products of a long process, one in which the institutions of freedom were born in Europe and in the United States. Western democracies are the result of a historical process that has experienced the separation between the political and the religious spheres and then gradually extended to the right to vote. In other continents, elections have often been introduced without a strong constitutional state, additionally linking these elections to demands for economic improvements that post-dictatorial regimes are often unable to satisfy over the short-term. This, until very recently, has made Europeans reluctant to accept, from Algeria to Palestine, the risks of elections, and has made these countries indulgent toward those deleting their results with force, favoring the predictability of absolutist moderate regimes and the submission of the young inclined to fatalism. A new order might well be born, if not in chaos, certainly amidst the most troubling uncertainty.
So there is also a third point to be reconsidered: European policy regarding the world we are linked to, not only by geography, but also by a great deal of shared history. Instead of denying, on the basis of imponderability, the possibility of alternatives to Arab absolutism, the West, and firstly of course the European Union, must contribute to creating them. This creation must be done prudently and carefully, with awareness of the many variables that exist in reciprocal relations, ranging from energy to security and immigration. The West must also do this with a new realism that cannot continue to be total inaction.
A wise West should not totally ignore but instead protect and support its natural allies: the democratic political parties that survive amidst extremism and repression in a context of extreme inequality of revenue. In Egypt, most of the fertile land is in the hands of about fifty families. One of the reasons for Asia’s strong development, compared to other regions in the world, is the fact that economic and social inequalities are less pronounced. There is a close correlation between the inequality index and the organization of exports, a monopoly of the home market, the level of savings and an inclination to hide capital abroad.
George W. Bush tried to export democracy with arrogance and dogmatism, while his successor appears to be haunted by Carter, who painfully exhibited the limitations of good intentions and whose shaky presidency received a coup de grace from the Iranian crisis. For Obama the events of the near future will prove to be a terrible test. But European statements made in recent days appear to be desperately racing after history and sound like rhetoric to countries controlling national wealth with no democracy, no infrastructures, and no diversification of their economies. Or, as in Saudi Arabia and Libya, are surviving by exploiting natural resources, while millions of young people, imprisoned behind a wall of feudal despotism, have no prospects apart from illegal immigration.
And yet Europe is a key place for those fundamental values of freedom that the Arab world is preparing to claim and that echo in the “medinas,” the ancient squares in North African cities. Europe has set up an original and complex form of government, a previously unknown theory and practice of shared governance. Europeans have the means, such as international banks, to contribute to the unblocking of neo-feudal societies in which the middle classes and the young find neither space nor opportunities, to impose forms that spark widespread capitalism. They have the means to consolidate constitutional states, without which elections are a farce; to facilitate the birth of a responsible civil society, without neglecting to perform a conscious self-analysis of national imperfections, such as the capability to absorb all that is heterogeneous within its collective social fabric. The Barcelona process instead drastically reduces regional and infrastructural projects and the objective of a free trade area between the two shores of the Mediterranean remains a mirage. The summit of Mediterranean Union leaders, scheduled for November 2010, has been postponed sine die. Our interlocutors’ role has been basically interpreted as that of the guardians of emigration and of reciprocal relations established within the framework of sales of European industrial products. The model remains the one provided by Turkey and the evolution of its main Islamic party. However, Turkey’s evolution is also the result of constant pressure applied by the European Union in view of the country’s possible membership.
Hence a new global, all inclusive, equal and not neo-colonial pact will be needed, becoming accustomed to more autonomous and less predictable players, but also actors prouder of their legitimacy. It will be necessary to allow oneself to be influenced by the lesson with no prejudice, encouraging reforms and oligarchic changes following a more risky but more productive path, reviewing excessively restrictive realism. We do not yet know whether this is the dawn of a new day for the whole Arab world. In Tunisia the Islamic party that is expected to soon once again become legal, is a moderate party and one opposed to a government of clerics and in favour of parliamentary rule. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has distanced itself from violence and is now integrated into civil society especially through the various professions, although extremism will continue to be fueled by Saudi wealth, by non-reformist clerics in Iraq and by extremist exegetes of the Koran. Egypt is not Khomeini’s Iran, Lenin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. All still depends on the desires of the young hungry for freedom, on the ambiguity of the armed forces that hold all the power, and on the divide between the poor and the wealthy. All remains to be conquered, depending on good relations with countries close to having freedom and equality between individuals and ethnic groups, between majorities and minorities. Even with a future with no guarantees, the greatest mistake would be to continue to remain attached to the past.
Regarding Israel, also taken by surprise in spite of the capability of its intelligence services, Arab countries remain coldly distant if not hostile, providing a sudden and painful wake-up call. The Egyptian crisis has opened a void around Israel, reducing its strategic advantage to one frontier, the one with Egypt, considered the safest for 30 years, just as privileged links with Turkey were cut off. We now know that for two years, from 2006 to 2008, the Palestinian Authority had presented generous proposals for settlers, for Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees. Peace really was just around the corner. But opposition from settlers and then the Netanyahu government supported by right-wing parties caused it to fail. The more Arab democracy progresses, the more intolerant it may become as far as occupation is concerned, with the risk that this restlessness will also spread to Palestinians. In an Arab world longing for freedom, the defects of a democracy such as Israel’s will become increasingly visible, certainly as an advanced democracy that undemocratically controls millions of besieged and imprisoned Palestinians. A rift may appear between Jerusalem and western capitals. This equation demands a credible revival of the peace process, for which the impetus can come only from the United States, and it is to this that a large part of Obama’s residual credibility in the Arab world is linked.
Silvio Fagiolo was one of those diplomats who in the past fifty years ensured that Italy played a leading role in Europe. An expert on Germany, his work at the Foreign Ministry positively influenced Italo-German relations for a number of decades. Born in Rome in 1938, Silvio Fagiolo’s career developed in a West marked by reconstruction and by the Cold War, when today’s emerging economies were still part of yesterday’s Third World. Thanks to his fluent German and Russian, he started his career as the Secretary to the Embassy in Moscow in the years of Leonid Breznev, and was then appointed consul in Detroit, embassy advisor in Bonn at the beginning of Helmut Kohl’s era, minister to Washington during the Nineties, Italy’s permanent representative at the European Union in Brussels and finally ambassador to Berlin from 2001 until 2005 when he retired to teach at the LUISS University in Rome and to write for the Sole/24 Ore. As a Europeanist, he spent twenty years at the crossroads of European integration, negotiating personally the Maastricht Treaty, the Amsterdam Treaty and the Nice Treaty.
Ever since Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations was founded, Fagiolo was a member of its scientific committee, representing the organisation at many meetings and also contributing with his articles to the Italian magazine Reset. He handed in his last article, a review that will appear in the next issue of Reset, just a few hours before he died.
Translated by Francesca Simmons