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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Arab protests prompt European Union to link aid to reform


The European Union will change its policy toward the Middle East in the aftermath of the latest protests. (File photo)
The European Union will change its policy toward the Middle East in the aftermath of the latest protests. (File photo)

By JAMES M. DORSEY


Six months of anti-government protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have prompted the European Union to radically change its policy toward the region.

Barely a week after US President Barak Obama unveiled economic incentives for Arab nations that embrace political and economic reform, Europe is following suit.

A draft EU policy paper offers North African nations cash and improved access to European markets in exchange for adopting reform programs.
As in the case of the United States, Egypt and Tunisia, whose presidents were toppled by protesters earlier this year, are likely to be the most immediate beneficiaries of the European program. US and European-backed Libyan rebels fighting Col Muammar Qaddafi who have already been officially recognized by France could also benefit.

Europe hopes that the revised policy will not only encourage countries like Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania to embark on reform but also stymie a flood of North African migrants fleeing the violence in Libya or seeking improved economic prospects.

All three states have witnessed mass protests but among them Morocco could be the most immediate beneficiary. Protesters have so far given Moroccan king Mohammed VI the benefit of the doubt by refraining from demanding his abdication. In response, the king has installed a commission to recommend far-reaching constitutional reform. The litmus test will be whether the proposals for power-sharing satisfy protesters' demands. Morocco is the only state in North Africa with ambitions to join the EU. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups the six oil-rich Gulf states have invited Morocco to join the GCC.
Algerian leaders are likely to have to go significantly further with plans for reform than they have until now to qualify for the EU incentives. Protesters are planning a strike to denounce what they see as President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s feeble attempts at change. Algerian leaders started talks with opposition parties on Saturday about reforms, including modifying the constitution and revising electoral law, to be implemented by the end of this year.

Mr. Bouteflika has instructed a panel of party representatives and constitutional law experts to draft proposals that would be submitted to parliament or a referendum.

Mr. Bouteflika’s opponents and independent Algerian media charge that the president is trying to put a more liberal veneer on his autocratic system of government. Mr. Bouteflika engineered in 2009 a change of the constitution that allowed him to run for a third term. He has yet to disclose what his intentions are when his term ends in 2014.

The Mauritanian government has so far shown little inclination to respond to protesters’ demands for political and economic reform that would remove the military from power, which they see as being the real force behind the façade of an elected government.

The EU is signaling with its new policy, which has still to be approved by member states, that it is putting behind it more than a decade of failed attempts to define its relationship with non-European Mediterranean nations and promote democracy in those nations that started with the 1995 Barcelona process. Arab nations never lived up to a pledge as part of the process to strengthen democracy and respect human rights.

The European Investment Bank under the new policy will provide over the next two years up to $8.5 billion in loans to Arab nations that move towards press freedom, freedom of association, the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and civilian control of the military while the EU will offer up to $8 billion in grants.

Like Mr. Obama’s broad-ranging speech setting out his Middle East and North Africa policy in the wake of the mass protests in the region, the EU has concluded that the past policy of opting for stability by supporting autocratic regimes is no longer sustainable. The EU’s new policy is intended to bring Europe more in line with Arab public opinion.

However, with the Arab spring having entered a phase in which autocratic leaders have responded either with brutal violence as in the cases of Libya, Syria and Yemen or with half-hearted reform proposals like in Algeria and Mauritania, it seems unlikely that billions of dollars in aid will be enough to persuade them to change their ways.

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