The Arab Awakening One Year On: A European Perspective

Almut Möller

European Council on Foreign Relations

Almut Möller is a political scientist and currently a senior policy fellow and head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) Berlin office. She has published widely on European affairs, foreign and security policy, and Germany’s role in the EU, and is a frequent commentator in the international media. Almut started her career in the think tank world at the Centre for Applied Policy Research at LMU University in Munich (1999-2008), where she focused on EU institutions and reform, and later on EU foreign policy. She then worked as an independent political analyst in London, focusing on EU-Middle East relations (2008-2010). Before joining ECFR she led the Europe program at the German Council on Foreign Relations/DGAP (2010-2015). Research fellowships have taken her to Renmin University of China in Beijing, the Al Ahram Center for Political and Security Studies in Cairo and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., where she continues to engage as a non-resident fellow. Almut is a member of the extended board of Women in International Security ( and a member of the 14th Advisory Board “Innere Führung” of the German Federal Ministry of Defense.

She is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

In early 2011, the debate in the European Union about the repercussions of the Arab awakening that started in late 2010 and continues to this day was largely framed in terms of opportunities rather than risks. The prospect of democracy finally making headway in one of the most static regions of the world in both political and economic terms triggered hopes on the northern shores of the Mediterranean about the Arab neighbors eventually becoming more “like us.”

This positive take might have to do with, positively put, a confidence in Arab societies to embark toward intrinsically stable, Western-type democracies or, to frame it less friendly, a good dose of wishful thinking of Europeans prone to neglecting the fact that the neighboring countries and societies have been and will remain rather different. But this would be a too simple analysis.

Without any doubt, Europeans still have a strong memory of the revolutions on their own continent a little more than two decades ago, in the course of which the Iron Curtain opened. Following the events in 1989, Germany was reunited, and most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe embarked on the path of a peaceful transformation toward democracy and a social market economy, and eventually became members of the Union in 2004 and 2007, respectively.

This recent memory as well as the track record of successfully supporting the transition processes in their eastern neighborhood certainly played a role in the initial discussions in Europe following the fall of the presidents Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gadhafi. The post-1989 experience also resonated in the language of the two communications that the European Commission and the European External Action Service adopted in March and May 2011, responding to the changes in the neighborhood.

However, the opening of the incrusted regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region quickly suggested that the upheavals would also go along with negative repercussions: civil wars in Libya and Syria (and a military intervention backed by EU members in the former while struggling to respond to the latter); the unclear prospect of Egypt’s transition, a pivotal country in the region; (so far limited) numbers of refugees trying to make it to the shores of the EU from North Africa; and an increasingly nervous Israel quickly reminded Europeans that they live with an explosive neighborhood—a neighborhood that raised concerns in the European Union’s capitals already in the past, as was expressed in the EU’s Security Strategy adopted in 2003.

This all meant that the debate, despite the continuous and largely genuine hope for a more democratic neighboring region, soon returned to the “business as usual” of the first decade of the twenty-first century. In the mid-1990s there had been a spirit of optimism: The prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians had led to the launch of the so-called “Barcelona Process,” a Euro-Mediterranean platform for dialogue on politics, security, economics, and human rights. But by the beginning of the new millennium, Europeans increasingly looked at their neighborhood through the prism of security. 9/11 played a major role in this, as did subsequent terrorist attacks within Europe, such as in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). Apart from these new types of terrorism, fighting illegal migration became the other arena in which Euro-Mediterranean relations, especially with North African countries, developed, and the EU welcomed the willingness of the regimes to cooperate in keeping migrants away from its shores.

While Euro-Mediterranean relations over the last decades have hence oscillated between opportunities and risks, the fundamental changes in the Arab world now require that the Union and its members re-assess the way they look at and interact with their neighborhood. Apart from the obvious opportunities that are not the focus of this essay, looking at a potentially new landscape of challenges, and indeed risks, means the EU and its members have to answer some fundamental questions: What kind of new risks will emanate from the (ongoing) changes in the southern and southeastern Mediterranean? And to what extent do those changes affect the already existing conflicts and risks in the EU’s southern neighborhood (both positively and negatively)?

Mapping Risks in the Southern Mediterranean

The transition processes that the MENA countries embarked on have developed with different dynamics: relatively peaceful upheavals such as in the republics of Tunisia and Egypt followed by an authoritarian roll-back in Egypt and first steps toward democratic consolidation in Tunisia a year on; civil wars that made Gadhafi fall in Libya, while President Assad of Syria at the time of writing still keeps his grip on power; growing popular pressure triggering a certain degree of reforms in monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan, protests violently suppressed such as in Bahrain. Political change has started to impact the whole region, and it is difficult to predict what will come next.

One thing, however, is clear: the transition countries are all facing an uncertain future at the moment. Even for a relatively small and rather homogenous country like Tunisia, that has made the most progress so far, it is hard to predict whether the transition to democracy will eventually succeed. In Tunisia, and even more so in Egypt, political liberalization will to a large extent depend on the economic prospects and the social cohesion, or lack thereof, of both country’s societies. “A success of democracy in Tunisia would have a positive impact on the whole region,” is an assumption often made in the EU these days. However, it looks rather more likely that once again the tone in the region will be set by Egypt, which is by far the most populated country in the MENA. One year after the fall of President Mubarak, Egypt still resembles more a military dictatorship than an emerging democracy. The majority of those that went out to Tahrir Square to topple the regime in February 2011 are hardly represented in the current process of shaping Egypt’s future. Elections have brought about Islamist majorities, and the military keeps a firm hand over the direction of the transition to maintain its power in the new Egypt. Whoever will rule Egypt in the future will struggle to bring its population the better life many of the deprived have been hoping, and indeed fighting for.

From neighboring Europe’s perspective, the prospect of a period of uncertainty about the future of the transition countries is rather worrisome. Transformation processes are always frail and prone to setbacks. But unlike in the case of Central and Eastern Europe, when the EU managed to develop significant leverage over the direction of the transition countries by giving them an EU membership perspective, the situation is very different this time. The EU is not willing to extend the carrot of accession, and even more so, none of the transition countries has expressed the wish to become a member of the Union. On the contrary, the Arab awakening is to a large degree a movement of emancipation. That means that the EU for the moment remains largely at the receiving end of the changes in the region.

The transitions might certainly prevail or get a positive spin (with outcomes that are likely to differ from the Western democracies and economies—something that Europe has to learn to both understand and accept). But if they go wrong, the EU and its members will be among the first to feel the impact. Neighboring countries plunging into internal polarization and turmoil or even becoming failing or failed states would not only struggle to deliver security and prosperity for their population. They might also become harbors for radical extremists, and organized crime directed toward Europe. Irregular migration, which EU countries got used to co-managing with the old regimes, would likely increase. Fundamentally, it would be a lot more challenging for the EU to work with dysfunctional states on issues of joint concern such as water scarcity in the MENA region or the risks related to proliferation.

Furthermore, the nexus between events in North Africa and the situation in sub-Sahara Africa has been widely ignored in European debates so far, despite the first signs of spill-overs: In a statement related to the coup in Mali at the end of March 2012, the UN Security Council raised concerns about the de-stabilizing impact of migrants returning after the crisis in Libya and elsewhere on the humanitarian situation in the Sahel region.

The recent regional dynamics also had an impact on the conflict that has kept the EU and the international community engaged for many years: On the Israeli-Palestinian front, time has been running out for the two-state solution for a while. But recent regional developments have made things even more difficult. In the worst case, developments might lead to a regional situation in which peace becomes unfeasible. As early as February 2011, at the Munich Security Conference, the Middle East Quartet led by the High Representative Catherine Ashton pushed for a new round of negotiations to make sure a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians supported by its Arab neighbors remained a realistic option. Again, Egypt is crucial in this regard. The Muslim Brotherhood has so far adopted a rather conciliatory approach vis-à-vis Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. However, it also suggested that reconsidering positions had become an option in the “new” Egypt. And again, the EU’s clout to influence this new kind of domestic considerations in the Arab world will be rather limited.



Geography means that events in the southern and southeastern Mediterranean have a more direct impact on the European Union and its members than on the United States. Taking this obvious fact into account, the European Union has tried to develop a comprehensive approach to engage with its southern neighbors in the past, as the Barcelona Process and the subsequently added European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) of 2004 demonstrate. Because of the nature of their neighborly relations it is indeed useful to aim at comprehensive strategy rather than selective engagement.

However, while the Arab awakening, as argued above, has made it more pressing for the EU and its members to try to eliminate or mitigate old and new risks in their neighborhood, engagement with the neighbors has also become a lot more challenging. Where does this leave the Union in the spring of 2012?

Clearly, one major conclusion a little more than a year into the Arab awakening is that the European Union and its members will have learn to live with greater uncertainties. The transition processes will take time and their direction and outcome will often remain unclear, and they will differ at different points in time. As a senior EU official put it in a recent conversation: “All we know is that we are moving from autocratic regimes towards something else.”

In its policies vis-à-vis the MENA region, the EU should therefore acknowledge these uncertainties and try to handle them better. Ways of doing this would include directing the resources of the new External Action Service (EAS) toward a more solid presence in the regional delegations, in particular by strengthening the presence of experts able to monitor and understand regional developments. Having relied on an attitude of “things never change” in the southern Mediterranean for decades, the EU and its members now have some catching up to do with regard to the new players and ideas floating in the southern Mediterranean.

But despite all difficulties, the EU should attempt to strengthen its leverage on the neighboring countries. It is in the EU’s interest that these countries successively develop toward more open societies, democracies, and inclusive and sustainable market economies—inspired by Western models, or in their own ways. However, cooperating with the autocratic regimes of the past has made the Union lose credibility in MENA countries. And, fundamentally, the Arab awakening in its essence is indeed more about a re-discovery of the Arab world rather than an orientation towards the European Union (like it was the case with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe).

In order to succeed with its vital interest of Euro-Mediterranean cooperation the EU and its members therefore need to put juicy carrots on the table—such as easier market access and greater mobility. These suggestions have already been floated in the 2011 EU documents on reforming the neighborhood policy. However, they have yet to be implemented, which brings the member states back in again. Without the backing of the EU’s capitals, the Union’s institutions cannot make significant progress in opening the common market to goods and people from the south.

Geography means that Europe cannot turn its back on its neighbors. In the course of the Arab awakening, Europeans have to re-define what they want their neighborly relationship with their Arab neighbors to look like in the future. But they have to be prepared for a future in which the Arab countries will often behave rather introverted, indifferent, or even hostile to Europe’s cooperation offers. This is not the time to leave things to regulatory approaches, as offered by the Mediterranean concepts of the past (ENP in particular). It is above all their political clout that the Union and its members will have to develop and bring to the table in the months and years to come if they want to mitigate the risks, or even help bringing about the positive potential of the Arab awakening.


Almut Möller heads the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. She is a Non-Resident Fellow at AGI.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.