EU foreign affairs ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday (10 February) congratulated Tunisia for adopting a new democratic constitution. They, however, regretted the absence of an inclusive process over the constitutional referendum in Egypt, held on 14 and 15 January.
Tunisia’s national assembly adopted on Thursday the country’s new constitution, describing it as a model for other countries which experienced the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
While the new constitution recognises Islam as the country's religion, it also enshrines freedom of conscience and belief, and equality between the sexes.
Alongside the vote, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa appointed a caretaker cabinet as part of a deal to end a crisis between Tunisia's Islamist party and its secular opposition until new elections.
“The EU congratulates Tunisia on its adoption of its new democratic constitution guaranteeing fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary”, the EU ministers stated.
The EU “wishes the Tunisian people every success in realising the democratic aspirations born of the 2011 revolution, which set off a transition process that extends beyond its own borders”, the statement reads. EU ministers expressed best wishes to the government of Mehdi Jomaa and readiness to increase the technical and financial assistance to Tunisia, which has doubled since 2011.
As one of the most secular nations in the Arab world, Tunisia has struggled since the Jasmine Revolution, with divisions over the role of Islam. But Tunisia's Islamists were more willing to compromise. After months of protests and deadlock, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist movement, which is the biggest political force in the country, agreed late last year to step aside for a caretaker administration of nonpolitical appointments that would govern until elections.
In contrast, the statement of EU ministers regarding Egypt expresses concerns on many accounts.
More than 98% of voters backed a new Egyptian constitution in a referendum on 14 and 15 January. According to Reuters, the turnout was well below the 55% that an Interior Ministry official had announced. The new constitution, which won wide support from many Egyptians who favoured Mursi's removal, could lead to an outright ban on Islamist parties and strengthens the political grip of the already powerful military establishment.
By adopting the Constitution, “an important step” has been achieved, the ministers said. However, they deplored “the absence of a fully inclusive process, the lack of attempts to overcome the polarisation of society and the closing of political space for dissenting opinion before and during the referendum”.
EU ministers also condemned the violence and loss of life during the constitutional referendum, as well on several other occasions.
“The EU reiterates its calls on all Egyptians to halt the cycle of violence and cease all actions that incite further violence, such as provocations, hate speech – including against Christian and other religious communities – and political statements that only serve to increase polarisation”, the ministers stated. Egyptian Coptic Christians have borne the brunt of persecution and violence by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in recent years.
EU ministers also voiced their concern over the deteriorating human rights situation, as well about the worsening climate for the press and the declining economic situation in the country.
“The EU recalls the crucial importance for Egypt to undertake necessary, fundamental economic reforms to ensure stability, investment, improved business environment, progress towards social justice, including better access to education. The EU will continue its support towards improving the social and economic conditions of the people, especially the poor, and stands ready to assist Egypt in carrying out these reform measures”, the ministers stated.
Reuters quoted the EU ambassador to Cairo saying yesterday that the Union wanted to restart talks with Egypt over a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) that could help double the value of commercial exchanges in the next few years.
Egypt's trade with the EU, traditionally its biggest trading partner, reached around €23 billion euros in 2012, but initial data showed it dropped a little last year, Moran said. Egypt has had an Association Agreement with the EU since 2004, as well as an agricultural and fisheries products agreement that took effect in 2010.
The DCFTA would extend far beyond the Association Agreement to cover trade in services, government procurement, competition, intellectual property rights and investment protection, according to the European Commission website.
Moran said preliminary discussions about a DCFTA stalled last year in the political instability that followed Mursi's removal.
"Unfortunately it's not been possible to get traction on this for now because the interim government I think is not in a position to start off something which is going to take quite some period of time," the ambassador said.
Since the first demonstrations in Tunisia in December 2010, a wave of popular discontent has shaken the Arab world, with protestors calling for dignity, democracy and social justice.
The EU has dealt with the crisis in trying to adopt a new approach to relations with its southern neighbours, proposing in March 2011 a "Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean".