These were the key conclusions of a seminar co-organised by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the French Parliament, and hosted by the Region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur in Marseilles on 11-13 April.
“The Arab Spring has irrevocably shaken the region and challenged the many long-standing assumptions about it”, NATO PA President, Dr. Karl Lamers, told the gathering. “I would like to pay tribute to all those who believed that a better life was possible and had the courage to act on that conviction. They are the drivers of change and the owners of their revolution.” Yet, “change does not come easily”, Dr Lamers stressed, “and it can take many forms. We look forward to see how much change countries of the region are prepared to make, and how they will choose to implement it.”
Experts confirmed that many challenges remain on the path to political and economic transition from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Economic and social grievances were a key factor in the popular protests that triggered the Arab Spring, parliamentarians heard. But economic reform and growth continue to face a range of obstacles: a low level of regional trade, bureaucratic red tape, excessive price distorting subsidies, and education systems that are misaligned with the requirements of modern and highly dynamic job markets. Despite the instrumental role women played in the Arab Awakening, they continue to lag behind the rest of the world in terms of literacy and presence in the political and economic spheres in many – though not all – countries of the region.
While North Africa has led the way in terms of political transition, Fatiha Dazi-Heni, a French-based analyst, suggested that the Arab Spring has had a deep impact on the Gulf region as well. Most of these countries are ruled in a highly autocratic fashion, and regimes there have naturally looked at events in Northern Africa with great concern. While there is little space for political change in Saudi Arabia, Dazi-Heni warned that a drop in oil prices could jeopardize the underlying social contract in the country.
In Syria, the regime’s crackdown is likely to become ever more brutal, Dr. Alan George, Professor at the University of Oxford, warned. Instability is providing fertile ground for jihadist extremists, and a humanitarian catastrophe is almost inevitable unless the international community takes action. George therefore called for an “intelligent international intervention”. Several participants, however, worried that the Syrian opposition was too fragmented and that an intervention might only trigger further instability.
The seminar’s discussions also highlighted the importance of stepping up efforts to break the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian talks in the wake of the Arab Spring (see separate press release).
Faced with this series of profound and complex changes, external actors are redefining their approach to the region.
Too often, after the September 11th attacks, “the Arab world has been seen through the prism of terrorism and religious fundamentalism”, Loïc Bouvard, former NATO PA President, and Head of French delegation to the NATO PA, regretted; it is now time to “turn the Mediterranean into an area for cooperation rather than conflict”.
EU, US and NATO officials all highlighted the need for an even more nuanced and differentiated approach, taking into account the important differences between countries of the region. “No one scenario is identical”, Sujata Sharma, senior diplomat at the US Embassy in Paris, told parliamentarians, and “the US supports no single scenario”. NATO is likely to continue its approach combining the multinational frameworks provided by the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with bilateral relationships with individual countries in the region. NATO’s relations with the region are also likely to move beyond dialogue towards assistance in defence and security sector reform, “when needed and where desired”, delegates heard.
Many speakers and participants underlined that it would be misleading to assume that the transition model followed in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union will work in the MENA region. Yet, some areas are still relevant today, Simon Lunn, former Secretary General of the NATO PA, argued. While there is no single model for security sector reform, the experience gained in the different countries of Central and Eastern Europe can help the new regimes in the MENA region define “an appropriate role” for their armed forces, ensure that they are “accountable to civilian government” and “do not use an excessive share of the country’s resources.”
“There is a natural urge among our countries to lend a hand, but exactly how to do so is not always apparent”, Dr Lamers noted. “Caution therefore is required, but so too is dialogue and engagement so we can better understand the needs of the region.” His call was echoed by Mr Bouvard: “We need to be modest and listen”, he insisted. In this regard, parliamentary diplomacy plays an essential role in building bridges between both sides of the Mediterranean, Fayez al-Tarawneh, former Jordanian Prime Minister, and President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, stressed.
The meeting in Marseilles brought together parliamentarians from 20 NATO Member countries, and representatives from 7 partners in the Southern Mediterranean and the Middle East as well as delegations from partner parliaments in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan. The NATO PA maintains regular dialogue with parliamentarians from the MENA region through its Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group.