An online voice for the Arab Spring

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One year after the Arab Spring, Europe's obligation is to promote dialogue in order to affirm its core values and assist those countries' struggle for democratisation, writes Tomi Huhtanen from the Centre for European Studies.

Tomi Huhtanen is the director of the Centre for European Studies, the think tank of the European People’s Party. The following was sent exclusively to EURACTIV.

"What began over a year ago as a fledgling demonstration in the Tunisian capital struck a chord with people across the country and soon spread throughout the region. Arabs were fed up with the deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes in their countries and, for the first time, felt that real change was within reach.

They mobilised through online and social media and, despite the threat of brutal crackdowns, the demonstrators held their ground. Within weeks, two of the longest-ruling dictators in the Arab world, in Tunisia and Egypt, were ousted. By autumn, Libyans finally shook free of Gaddafi’s grip, due in part to military action by NATO countries.

The dramatic events that came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’ opened the door for a new and promising future for people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). However, the Arab Spring also raised new and difficult questions. Who will govern now? Will democratic institutions form in countries that previously knew authoritarian regimes? A year later, the answers to many questions remain unclear.

However, for European policymakers, one point should be perfectly clear: the Arab Spring has created a rare opportunity for Europe to develop a fresh approach to the region that does not compromise values for the sake of convenience. But Europe’s approach must also rely on the people of MENA countries and must be characterised by positive involvement, not unwanted intervention.

In an effort to forge this new approach, the Centre for European Studies, the think tank of the European People’s Party, recently launched an initiative to begin a new dialogue between Europeans and people in MENA countries.

Titled ‘Springeneration’ in reference to the Arab Spring, and in the hope of a new start in the Arab world led by a new generation of democrats, the project uses the same media tools that facilitated the Arab Spring movement. Through an online public opinion platform (www.springeneration.eu), people in MENA countries and in Europe now have the chance to exchange ideas about their relations.

So far, the project has generated great interest, with over 35,000 participants – mostly in Arab countries – who have shared more than 10,000 comments. Some interesting trends have emerged as well: although there has been a tremendous response in both Egypt and Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first gained momentum, the largest group of respondents are Libyan.

Most respondents have been eager for their countries to build stronger relations with Europe, as long as this is through a dialogue based on mutual respect. Although a small percentage of respondents have called for less involvement by Europe in their countries, many more hope that Europe can play a positive role in bringing about improvements. For example, one respondent in Tunisia called for "European expertise in the field of human rights protection and in establishing a modern, free media", which has been a topic echoed by many other participants.

Another prevalent theme has been the role of Europe in supporting education reform in the region, including a new emphasis on student exchange between MENA countries and Europe. Moreover, many participants have called for increased economic cooperation. As one respondent noted, "A free trade association, which formed the basis for the European Union itself, would provide for economic growth within the region and would further enhance dialogue and cultural exchanges." Clearly, there is role for Europe to play in the new Middle East and North Africa – as long as that role is based on genuine cooperation.

Although Europe is currently faced with unprecedented challenges at home, its leaders must not neglect the possibilities the Arab Spring has opened up. To be sure, there is scepticism among some in the Arab world about the intentions of the West, including Europe. But there is a much stronger desire among people in the MENA region for cooperation and a new spring in European-Arab relations. Europe must reciprocate that desire, and it must do so sooner rather than later.

Above all, Europe must not compromise the values that have underpinned European integration, and that now characterise the hopes of people in the Arab world. As one participant in Yemen emphasised, "With the Arab Spring, European nations at times seemed to support the dictators. Whether this was real support or just a slow reaction, Europe needs to rethink its approach. Democratic nations should help the aspirations of others who desire it."

The promise of the ‘springeneration’ will be best met if Europe rises to that challenge."

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