Parliament debates Arab ‘democratic tsunami’

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Inspired by revolts that have toppled Arab rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen have taken to the streets to demand the resignations of their own heads of state. The European Parliament yesterday (16 February) debated the unfolding events.

MEPs discussed the extraordinary developments in the Arab world (see 'Background'), with Greens/European Free Alliance group co-chair Daniel Cohn-Bendit describing the unfolding events as a "democratic tsunami" encapsulating high hopes for the future but also fears that cannot be ignored.

EU Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle, menawhile, has scheduled an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers for this coming Saturday (19 February).

The gathering will take place ahead of a visit by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to Egypt on Monday and Tuesday.

Ashton will be the most senior foreign diplomat to visit Egypt since its former ruler, Hosni Mubarak, resigned on 11 February following 18 days of massive protests. She has already visited Tunisia, Israel and the Palestinian territories and is expected to travel on to Jordan and Lebanon.

Addressing the situation in Egypt, Füle said the EU executive had taken note of commitments made by the military junta which is de facto running the country to revise the constitution, hold parliamentary and presidential elections, honour international treaties and obligations, and limit the military's role to a six-month period.

Even though "it is not for us to dictate outcomes or propose solutions," the EU "will closely watch the steps that will be taken," the commissioner said, expressing hope that "they will pave the way towards democratic, free and fair elections".

Füle said that in Egypt as in Tunisia, the EU was "unequivocally supportive" of the transformation process that has begun. There is, however, an important difference between the two countries, he pointed out, because in his words the political situation in Tunisia is clearer.

Egypt transactions monitored

He also revealed that the Egyptian authorities had already approached the EU with initial requests, including on "dealing with suspicions of misappropriation of public funds".

According to Reuters, similar requests to "monitor transactions that could potentially represent misappropriated or diverted state assets" have been made to the United States, as well as to Britain and France on a bilateral basis.

However, senior administration officials in Washington and a foreign ministry spokesman in Paris said Mubarak was not part of that request.

Asked by a journalist to comment on developments in Libya, a country where the economic interests of the West have often prevailed over human rights concerns, a European Commission spokesperson said the EU had urged Libya to allow "free expression".

"We also call for calm and for all violence to be avoided," spokesperson Maja Kociancic told the press in Brussels.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek made the following statement on the situation in Bahrain: "Respect for the universal rights of citizens, their rights to demonstrate and freedom of expression can not be just empty phrases. The Bahraini authorities must listen to its people. The use of violence to disperse peaceful demonstrators is never a solution, and I very strongly condemn a crackdown in the middle of the night. Such an act can never be justified."

"I urge the Bahraini authorities to show restraint and the demonstrators to remain peaceful in their actions. I send my condolences to the families to those who have lost their lives in the protests.

"For democracy to fully function, the government must listen to all of its people and truly representative institutions should be put in place. No country will prosper in the long-term by alienating its citizens, by clamping down on the civil society.

"The reforms carried out by the Bahraini authorities so far need to advance much faster. They must also be more ambitious and take advantage of the civic and democratic aspirations of the people. Turning to people in an inclusive and open manner is the only path. Equal opportunities to participate in economic and political life are a fundamental right of every citizen; it is not simply in the gift of those in power," Buzek concluded.

Speaking on behalf of the centre-right European People's Party, Spanish MEP José Ignacio Salafranca said: "The departures of Mubarak and Ben Ali are necessary conditions, but are not enough to guarantee the democratic transition process, a process that still presents many uncertainties, the most important being consolidating democracy."

He went on to say that: "This is a good occasion to show that the EU understands in this historical moment we have to play as a global actor and make the required homework or we will have to accept not playing the role we wanted to have."

Speaking for the Socialists & Democrats group, Romanian MEP Adrian Severin observed that "events in Egypt proved that Islam could not be only fundamentalist but can also be democratic. The popular revolt was, on the one hand, the result of the evolution of Egyptian elites and, on the other hand, a consequence of the hardship caused by the global crisis".

"If the EU does not address immediately the need to overcome hardship in Egypt, the revolution might move to anarchy and from there onto another dictatorship," Severin warned. 

Liberal ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt told the House that "the Commission has to come forward with a credible global plan for Tunisia and Egypt," although he pointed out that the EU must also send a message to Egypt regarding the lack of involvement of secular parties in efforts to redraft the constitution.

He concluded by saying that "what we need now is a bold message by High Representative Catherine Ashton on what is happening in Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Libya and Morocco without waiting for things to happen".

French Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit told the House that "we have today in Egypt and Tunisia a Democratic tsunami". He went on to say "we must mobilise special funds to help people in Tunisia and Egypt now because the reasons for the revolt were first hunger, misery and that if in the transition to democracy there is no relief from poverty there is a risk the rebels may move to the side of fundamentalists".

British Tory MEP Charles Tannock (European Conservatives & Reformists) underlined the importance of the Camp David Accords to Israel's security. He pointed out that the "EU should make its help conditional on preserving peace treaty" and ensure adequate financial aid while "EU political parties must help set up secular sister parties in Egypt".

Spanish MEP Willy Meyer of the leftist GUE/NGL group stated: "The EU has a very serious problem with its neighbourhood policy. We have passed from being custodians of Ben Ali and Mubarak to pretending that we are protecting the revolutionary process of a civil society that wants change."

He added that "both revolutions are seeking a social and legal status that has nothing to do with religion".

Italian MEP Fiorello Provera (Europe of Freedom & Democracy group) said: "The fall of Mubarak opens the way not only to democracy, but an opportunity for the Egyptian people. These elections, if they are held, will allow economic development. The European policy in Egypt must be followed by reforms and must help people to choose their future for themselves."

Reuters reported that in Bahrain, some 2,000 protesters camped out at a major road junction in the centre of the capital Manama, hoping to emulate the rallies on Cairo's Tahrir Square and demanding a change of government.

Though itself only a minor oil exporter, Bahrain's stability is important for neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter and a key supporter of Bahrain's royal family. An upset in Bahrain could embolden marginalised Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia.

At 750 square kilometres, Bahrain is about the size of Singapore. Bahrain is also a hub for banking and financial services in the Gulf and is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

In Libya, an oil-rich country ruled by a dictatorial regime led by Muammar Gaddafi since 1969, people using social networking websites like Facebook called for a nation-wide protest to be held today (17 February).

On Wednesday (16 February), hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, demanding the ousting of the government.

In Yemen, protesters clashed with government loyalists yesterday, with the police unable to keep the two sides apart. Many say any uprising in Yemen could unfold slowly and with a lot of bloodshed in a country where one in two people own guns.

Of the 23 million people in Yemen, which is often close to collapsing into a failed state, 40% live on less than $2 a day and a third suffer from chronic hunger.

  • 19 Feb.: Extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers to discuss situation in Egypt following resignation of Hosni Mubarak and developments in the region.
  • 21-22 Feb.: High Representative Catherine Ashton to visit Egypt.

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