Power to the people? Reactions to EU response to the Arab Spring

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      In response to the Arab Spring, the European Union (EU) promised to shift away from business as usual. It aims to put support for human rights and democracy at the centre of its co-operation policy with the Arab neighbourhood. In this regard, enabling civil society to function, to advocate for citizens’ priorities and rights and to hold governments and donors to account is pivotal. However, regional consultation on EU policies appears to have been either insufficient, without impact or unappealing. Furthermore, double standards in the past have undermined the EU’s credibility in the Arab world and have created a mistrust of its intentions. While supporting necessary reform in the region, the EU must avoid taking the driving seat, which risks delegitimizing transitions led by the Arab people. It needs to ensure that civil society representatives, especially women’s’ organisations and youth, have a meaningful role in dialogue with their governments, and it also needs to press for effective civil society consultation in the transition processes. Without improved outreach, branding and communication to all levels of civil society (urban and rural) to ensure genuine dialogue with civil society and legitimate governments, the EU’s approach to supporting democratic reform will not succeed.

      The EU’s new neighbourhood policy, agreed on in mid 2011, is based on the premise of “more for more” - giving ‘more’ benefits to those that do “more”, or in other words, providing incentives to countries that reform “further” and “faster”. Incentivizing democratic reform and human rights is not rejected as a concept by civil society partners with whom Oxfam works – indeed this reform focus is necessary if social and economic justice are to be fostered. The use of ‘carrots’ in this way is perceived as a form of conditionality, but is better than sticks. In the context of the Arab Spring, and the pursuit of democratic standards long denied to the people of the region, some donor conditions could be appropriate, although conditionality alone is not a panacea. It will appear as patronizing and will not be accepted at the country level if precise criteria are not negotiated, and unless it is accompanied by a genuine shift to more balanced power relations between governments and donors, as well as with civil society. The degree of leverage from proposed incentives is also modest, especially with the discredited image of the EU and other donors previously allied with dictators. In Tunisia and Egypt, the interests of parts of the old regimes remain entrenched.

      At this time, the protection of rights of individuals and organizations in Egypt are of particular concern. The general crackdown on civil society in Egypt is  a major concern, including the recent raids on foreign and Egyptian Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and criminal prosecution of human rights defenders and organizations in Egypt. The work of human rights organizations in this country is vital to ensure that the Egypt which will arise, respects human rights, democratic values and protects the interests of the poor and marginalized. On top of this, a new NGO law has been drafted for discussion in parliament which local NGOs describe as the most restrictive in 60 years. Protests in Egypt continue to be met with excessive use of force by police and military security– which has already left at least 15 people dead and more than 2530 people injured after the violence that took place on the 1st of February at the football match in Port Said, in which more than 70 people lost their lives. This had compelled some Egyptian members of parliament to stage a sit-in in front of parliament until violence against protesters is stopped.

      The EU is placed in a difficult position to implement its “More for More” approach in Egypt in this context of an increasingly charged atmosphere with an unelected authority and where reform opportunities upon which to reward with aid are hard to identify. Meanwhile EU aid, as admitted by the Egyptian authorities themselves, is desperately needed. But the EU institutions have been slow in finding creative ways to implement “More for More” in the earlier days of the revolution. Moreover, the EU diplomacy is seen as insufficiently robust. The European Union gave a wrong signal by giving the green light to the European Commission to proceed with negotiations for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area before an elected Egyptian government is in place and without consultation with civil society.

      In response, Oxfam has formulated recommendations to the EU based on the consultation with its civil society partners in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco (and Yemen) regarding the region as a whole. For further information, read our policy paper.

      Although robust donors’ diplomacy can be useful, the central dialogue should be the one between a society and its state, rather than between donors and the state. The EU should not repeat the mistake of the past and should stand by demands made by the Egyptian people. Its approach must be forthright but consultative and should not lead to restricting people’s ability to influence policy on democratic reform and economic and social justice.

      Oxfam and its civil society partners’ strongly urge the EU to:

      Ensure that civil society representatives especially women organizations have a formal statutory role in EU-government dialogue in its current and future cooperation (including the SPRINGprogramme, a new 350m EUR aid package named Strengthening Partnership for Economic Growth – public allocations so far have only been made for Tunisia) Consultation must be formalized, timely, not cosmetic or taking place after the event.

      Press for participation and representation of civil society especially of women and youth in the transition process and democratic reform.  This means ensuring an enabling environment for civil society, including respect for the rights to peaceful association and assembly. The EU should ensure this issue is on the agenda of discussions with the Egyptian authorities and should press for accountable authorities through for example calling for an independent investigation on the recent football violence on 1st of February.

      Prioritise the use of the Civil Society Facility (a new instrument under the revised neighbourhood policy) for women’s organisations and Community Based Organisations with a track record in promoting gender equity, as well as youth groups, and for technical and financial assistance (including advocacy staff costs). Women’s organisations are facing the greatest challenges, and youth groups represent a huge resource of the will to act but lacking sufficient direction.  Funds can be channelled through intermediary European or other NGOs given the concerns of some partners of being associated with foreign funding.

      Improve outreach, branding and capacity in EU delegations, and clearly communicate to civil society at country level the new policy framework with key dates for consultation, and schedule such rapid but inclusive and timely consultation on reform criteria and benchmarking, the SPRING programme, and the use of the Civil Society Facility.

      Negotiate at country level the criteria, and benchmarks under More for More for assessing democratic reform including additional criteria such as non-discrimination. The EU should refrain from including any form of economic conditionality like liberalisation of the economy and services. The EU needs to insist on principles of inclusion of civil society and transparency from all sides. Mutual Accountability must be based on balanced power relations including civil society because without these considerations, the More for More approach is unlikely to succeed.

      Speed up pending decisions regarding funding allocations from SPRING. While there are serious challenges especially in Egypt, regarding undemocratically elected transitional governments, the EU should utilize SPRING but aim to limit funding temporarily to short term aid, targeted at supporting democratic reform and human rights, and poverty reduction, and in a manner that is inclusive and transparent. The EU should adopt creative and diverse means of disbursing funds, including to NGOs. Exceptional loan agreements during transitions must be transparent and have the support of the people in view of the legacy they create. In the long term, and when a democratically elected government is in place, donors should however aim at long term predictable aid, with budget support as a key mechanism for achieving this.

      Review EU Member states arms exports control policies in the region given the direct link to human rights abuse.


      Jamie Balfour-Paul has over twenty years of experience on policy and programming for international NGOs, in particular Oxfam. He worked in the Middle East and Africa as well as in the UK.

      This blog post features the authors personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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