Politics & The World

In 2015, Michael Lüders wrote a seminal book on the hypocrisy of Western[1] politics in the Middle East. Allegedly driven by Western ‘liberal values,’ interventions from outside powers have been anything but constructive, leaving the region in a much worse, much more chaotic situation than before. Taking Lüders’ major claim as a guiding narrative, it is difficult to not see how the current quagmire in the Middle East, the growth of failed states, violent conflicts, the refugee crisis and the surge of terrorism are largely Western, self-inflicted dilemmas. This does not imply that the illusive concept of the West as a superior state order is responsible for the long list of terrorist attacks over the last months. However, without any doubt, the bottom line is that Western countries, first and foremost the United States, bear a great responsibility in creating their own enemies and accelerating chaotic circumstances and radicalisation.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The first fallacy of several American governments and their European allies has been to distinguish between “the good and the evil” among conflict parties in the Middle East. Policymakers claim to understand the local culture and political situation and choose local leaders to be “evil” where deemed appropriate. It’s a process chain that has been largely repeated on various occasions, probably starting with the ousting of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran 1953. Mossadegh had been a democratically elected chef d’état, and Iran was thriving as a showcase of liberties in the whole Middle Eastern region. Largely unknown to most of the public nowadays, the US and the UK were the main instigators behind the regime change in Tehran, putting into place a puppet government (led by the Shah), which catered to British and American economic interests in the country. Guaranteeing foreign domination of Iran’s oil sector for twenty years while neglecting the local population created a breeding ground for anti-US resentments among ordinary Iranians. Numerous are those who believe the Islamic Revolution of 1979 could have been prevented/would probably not have happened without the Western interference in Iran. As if history repeats itself, the same naming and shaming of evil leaders recurred on various occasions, from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Qadaffi in Libya to Assad in Syria. Former US President George W. Bush coined a famous phrase when speaking of ‘the axis of evil’.

The West is always the best

Of course: contrary to the evil, Western forces feel the need to represent enlightened values and disregard their own severe mistakes (that have cost the lives of thousands of innocent people in the region). They feel empowered to impose sanction regimes (as in Iraq and Iran) – which – by the way – never led to the envisaged regime change and improved social/political climate. Instead, Iraq is a horrific case where a society of well-educated people, including some of the best doctors and scientists in the Middle East, was destroyed by an externally-sanctioned regime. Throughout the 1990s, the country was so badly hit that at times even first-aid mechanisms and vaccinations for childhood diseases were missing. Western ignorance also surfaces when it comes to the choice of “friends” in conflicts in the Middle East. While cooperation with Russia was always seen as an option of last resort, supporting dubious proxies on the ground was done without the blink of an eye. Blatantly, the American decision to dissolve all armed forces of Saddam Hussein and replace them with an Iraqi army of their own liking pushed thousands of former soldiers into the arms of more radical forces such as the Islamic state. Equally opaque, US weapon support to allegedly moderate Islamist forces ended up arming Jihadist groups in the Syrian civil war. The Islamic State would not have been able to acquire such weapons without indirect, unintended American assistance.

The axis of instability

Speaking of an axis of evil has been an American narrative, and the war against terror has been continued by Barack Obama with much smoother language, using drones and surrogate warfare without any ‘boots on the ground.’ Hypocritical positions by consecutive American administrations have magnified the situation. Take Egypt, a de facto military dictatorship, tolerated by all Western forces for reasons of stability and even financed with trillions of dollars (making it the largest rentier state on earth). Take the Gulf States, whose citizens often finance radical Islam in the region, but who are still best partners, mostly Saudi Arabia. Or the Israel-Palestine conflict, which the West has considered for a long time as so one-sided pro-Israel that the real underlying problem has not been understood.  Could it be worse? Well, the EU has admitted to its own ambivalence and narrow-mindedness by adopting a far more distanced, differentiated neighbourhood policy towards Middle Eastern countries.  Accepting one’s own mistakes, not forcing one’s own views on states in the region are some first steps to be taken … but from the American side there is no such thing to be expected in the near future. There’s a new President about to be elected, either a candidate that wants to abandon NATO and pull back all American troops. Or an expansive agenda by the less radical, yet still belligerent democratic candidate, which could lead to new tensions/errors in the Middle East. Finally, supporting the Arab uprisings has been the right and only choice by Western countries, but not following up afterwards has been a cardinal error, as the crumbling state structures in Libya and Iraq demonstrate. The reality is that the Middle East resembles an axis of instability stretching from Syria to Libya, and the US remains invested in all major conflicts – without a clear idea where this investment will lead to.

 [1] The „West“ is here understood as a concept delineating mainly the United States and its allies in Europe – all countries which claim to support liberal democracy, rule of law etc.

inspired by:  Michael Lüders (2015): Wer den Wind sät: Was westliche Politik im Orient anrichtet. German Version.

photo from flickrccl.

Politics & The World

by Sebastian Franzkowiak

1.13 o’clock, at a roadblock on the outskirts of Tozeur, in Southern Tunisia. Armed to the teeth, two police officers enter the bus and collect all passports. After extensive scanning of the suitcases, the driver is allowed to continue the journey. I am on the night bus Tozeur-Tunis, and this is already the second control during the last thirty minutes. Mere routine, my seat neighbour assures me. But also a prevalent feature of the public image of every town you visit throughout the country. As soldiers, police officers and other security forces patrol even the smallest villages, security is high on the agenda in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

The bus later on passes Sidi Bouzid, which many consider the cradle of the 2011 revolts leading to the ousting of Ben Ali. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, put himself into flames, inflaming the spark that led to the pan-Arab wave of street protests. Flames are a powerful image when it comes to the Arab uprisings: Five years later, Tunisia is the only case that entered the path towards democratisation, while the neighbourhood is (sometimes literally) in flames: post-2013 Egypt is witnessing a return to almost business as before with the military ruling the country, while Syria finds itself in a sheer endless quagmire. And then there is Libya.

The current descent of Tunisia’s southern neighbour into a failed state aggravates concerns in Tunis that the instability might sweep across the border. Controls as on my night bus do not come out of nowhere – as the March attack on Ben Guerdane proved, the security situation in the southern territories is anything but calm. In a cloak-and-dagger-operation, a bunch of jihadists had attacked the city on the Libyan border, inflicting severe casualties including Tunisian civilians. It is one attack in the sad line of many, starting exactly one year ago. On March 18, 2015, Tunis’ Bardo Museum was attacked by two gunmen targeting particularly foreign tourists, killing twenty and wounding many more. Only three months later, thirty-eight predominantly British tourists were killed in a popular beach resort near Sousse. Apart from these major attacks against tourists, the presidential guard was targeted in late November 2015, killing twelve members. All of these incidents have something in common: they are direct attacks on Tunisia’s democracy.

While terrorism is certainly a global phenomenon in 21st century life, the effects for Tunisia have been devastating. Tourism broke down in 2016, and me and my friends were one of the few foreign tourists on our visit to Tozeur. As the hotel manager reveals: “I can understand those not willing to come to our country if they aim to spend peaceful vacations…but one has to see that we are doing a painfully good job keeping this fragile construct together.”

How to move forward?

Of course he is right – Tunisian authorities are putting a lot of efforts into building up a democratic system following more than sixty years of authoritarian leadership. Members of Parliament continuously stress that the transition will take years, but concrete results become visible: A very inclusive approach while drafting the 2014 Constitution and recent fair elections leading to a democratic turnover (with secularist Nidaa Tounes winning the latest elections). Not speaking of the advanced freedom of expression that evolves. The awarding of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a good reminder of the impressive progress made since 2011. The four major “winning” civil society organisations are the backbone of the democratic credentials the country is consolidating.

Where does the EU come in?

Tunisia’s revolution revealed the ambiguity of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy, which had hitherto cheered Ben Ali’s Tunisia as a bastion against illegal immigration and radical fundamentalism. When it became clear the regime would collapse, the EU switched towards a pro-protestors strategy, essentially pouring millions of euros into Tunisia’s economy. The EU has had a major stake in the continuous stability of Tunisia, offering new carrots such as on-going negotiations for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area and recent aid packages of more than 300 million euro.

But neither prizes nor money flowing into Tunisia is a magic formula guaranteeing democratic progress. Not everybody was able to benefit from the revolution – every second taxi driver will tell you how much better business was back in the days of Ben Ali. Young Tunisians frequently feel they do not necessarily grasp the fruits of the political deals brokered in Tunis, as thousands of university graduates fail to find jobs. Cooperation between universities and companies must be improved – allowing for professional on the job trainings and developing highly skilled forces in Tunisia. Access to work has been a key slogan during the 2011 Revolution – if continuously neglected, the potential for new riots still exists. Those that feel desperate in their deprivation from the fortunes of the revolution are also those most likely to become radicalised – Tunisia has the dubious honour to be the country providing most foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS.

Is there a specific guideline forward?

While the EU loves delineating roadmaps, concrete strategies for Tunisia have not yet become obvious and the recent political developments have caused the EU to move its attention to its internal political problems. And this might be good to a certain extent – considering the final evolution has to come from within Tunisia. For a too long time, external actors believed they can shape the internal affairs of MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) countries. A Tunisian-driven process will be the most efficient one – Tunisia has to find its Tunisian way towards democracy. Historically, Arab countries do not like to be seen as states ‘bought by foreign powers’. This leads Tunisian politics being torn between the need to rely on external help in some domains (crucially, security/intelligence cooperation) while maintaining a part of its attraction among its people by standing on its own against the big challenges the country is facing.

Having studied in this beautiful country for three months, I could take my own look at the splendours and paradoxes of a society that is on a promising, though shaky way forward. For the sake of the warm-hearted Tunisian people, but also in the best interest of the whole Mediterranean region, the Tunisian experience should remain one where positive headlines outweigh the negative ones. After all, Tunisia’s Revolution was pointedly called the Yasmine Revolution: Hopefully, this beautiful flower will continue to flourish, to avoid becoming a withering blossom.


Image by Sebastian Franzkowiak

Politics & The World

by Hoai Tram Nguyen

People who know me call me a European Federalist, as I admire the way in which the EU’s foreign policy is conducted: with the long term goal of peace, democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, sustainable development and good governance. But the truth is that the EU has two faces when it comes to its foreign policy. On the one hand, the EU is trying to promote its values in the world. On the other hand, the EU is prioritizing economic benefits over its own values. These economic benefits are particularly prominent in the arms trade business. Though limited research has been conducted within this highly sensitive field, I am convinced that exporting arms is never the road towards a stable, peaceful world. In this article I will show that several Member States (MS) have exported arms to the Middle-East, and in particular to Libya. I am therefore wondering: is the EU contradicting its own norms and values by exporting arms to conflict zones?” The arms trade is a phenomenon that I strongly oppose, as it is hypocritical and contradictory to everything the EU is standing for. One can simply not promote democracy, peace and stability in the world, while simultaneously undermining this by selling weapons.

When the civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, many refugees were stranded on Lampedusa. Italy argued it did not have the capacity to solve this problem on its own, and turned to the EU for help. The people fleeing from this civil war were on the run from Gaddafi’s violent regime. The alarming part in this story is that the weapons used against the Libyan people were manufactured in Europe and exported by EU MS. Data [1] shows that the worth of the military equipment exported to Libya by MS exceeded € 900 million prior to the civil war (2005-2010). In particular, Italy exported more than € 300 million worth of arms to Gaddafi’s regime, including bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, rifles, military vehicles and so on. This is the same country that turned to the EU for help when it became confronted with the results of its own arms trading by being overwhelmed by Libyan refugees.

I must also stress the other side of the story; in short, all this does not mean that MS can export arms without facing difficulties. Officially, there are eight criteria set out in the Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP that must be considered before granting export licenses of military/arms exports to a third country. The Common Position has been adopted as a politically binding tool within the CFSP, yet the CFSP still remains intergovernmental – making it non legally binding. Research conducted by Hansen & Marsh (2015) shows that many MS did not take these criteria into account in the case of Libya, resulting in a high volume of arms exports. I would like to emphasize three of the eight criteria:

  1. Respect for human rights conditions in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law;

According to Amnesty International, human rights conditions in Libya were consistently violated by the regime. These reports warned that small arms and military vehicles could be used for internal repressions. Hansen & Marsh’s research shows that the UK exported military vehicles nonetheless, ignoring the reports. Hence, if you have seen photos in the headlines of vehicles patrolling the streets in Libya during the uprising in 2011, you know where they might have come from. Also, the New York Times reported that cluster munitions from Spain were used against civilians in Misrata by the regime.

2. Existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted with the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions;

In relation to the redistribution of arms, MS should have abstained from exporting arms to the Gaddafi regime. The past has shown that the regime has re-exported these under undesirable conditions to, amongst others, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone and many more.

3. Preservation of regional peace, security, and stability.

This criterion should have clearly prevented arms exports to Libya as there was a serious threat of instability. Gaddafi’s regime had not shown itself to be a responsible partner to trade arms with, as it had been in conflict with several of its neighbors: it supported military coups in Ghana, and had several territorial disputes with Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia.

In sum, taking the above mentioned points, one can conclude that the EU must put more pressure on its MS to refrain from exporting arms. Even if there is only a slight doubt that the arms will be re-distributed in the wrong hands, MS should not export them. Especially if we look at the situation in the Middle East now. Libya was just an example, but for all we know, there is a possibility that ISIS is fighting with weapons manufactured by EU countries. However, it is important to note that EU countries are not the only arms exporters in the world. As a matter of fact, next to France, the UK and Germany, the countries with the largest arms industries are China, the USA, and Russia. Five of these countries are Permanent Members in the UN Security Council to “maintain international peace and security”. Ironic, isn’t it?

To a certain extent, the EU has contributed to regional instability, increased the levels of armed conflicts, and failed to preserve peace. Thus, regarding the current situation in the Middle East, it can be concluded that the EU has been acting in a hypocritical way by exporting arms, knowing that the consequences will go against its own values. War and conflict can be a great business for countries with big arms industries as they can profit from these “ideal-suited-situations”, a phenomenon that prevails over values for peace. But if we want to have sustainable peace in the world, I urge all arms-exporting countries in the world to stop exporting!

Image by ϟ†Σ, taken from flickr