“Turmoil in the Arab world – what’s changing”: seminar address by Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb

“If you can’t do politics, you have to make history”

“Turmoil in the Arab world – what’s changing”: seminar address by Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb on 4 April 2011 at the House of Estates Helsinki

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

If Karl Marx were alive today, he’d probably start his Communist Manifesto (1848) in a completely different way: “A spectre is haunting in the Arab world – the spectre of liberal democracy.” Today, some 20 Arab countries are in the grip of social turmoil. The movement is against oligarchy, and for democracy and human rights. In some places work is already underway to build Arab democracy. In the words of my dear colleague Paavo Väyrynen: ‘It’s time for change.’

When change does begin happen somewhere in the world, we at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and our 98 missions know we’ll be working long hours for some time. After three years to the day in my position as Foreign Minister, I can tell you this for sure. I am now delighted to be able to introduce some of our Ambassadors who are stationed in these countries and who keep people back in Finland posted with first hand experience and information from on the scene. They are also an important part of the network that in emergencies is deployed to help Finnish nationals around the world.

Let me be quite frank: The upheavals in the Arab world came as a complete surprise. This despite the fact that reports from our embassies and many other factors suggested that developments in Arab countries were not on a sustainable basis. Still, we’re in good company – the extent and speed of the changes that started from Tunisia took almost everyone by surprise.

In the wake of the unrest in the Arab world we’ve held meetings, conducted analyses, issued statements, evacuated and dispatched humanitarian aid and imposed sanctions. I have given dozens of interviews on these events and offered shorter assessments on my blog. What my Ambassadors and I want to try and do here today is step back and look at the bigger picture. I address the current situation in the Arab world via three questions: 1) What lies behind the turmoil in the Arab world; 2) What lies ahead; and 3) What action should Finland and the EU take? I don’t of course claim to have any final answers – indeed, we probably don’t even know all the right questions to ask. But one has to try.

I What lies behind the Arab turmoil?

All Arab countries are different, and the reasons for change vary. In all cases the current situation is the product of multiple causes. Nonetheless I believe that three factors have been decisive to the overall outcome.

Firstly, people’s expectations have been thwarted by slow economic development. The Arab world has simply missed out on the global economic growth of the past couple of decades. In China and India, this growth has drawn hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. People in Arab countries, by contrast, have not enjoyed any real economic welfare. From 1980 to 2004, Arab countries’ GDP per capita increased by 6.4 per cent. Not year on year, but over the whole period. At the same time China’s annual GDP per capita growth was higher than that almost every year throughout this period!

Secondly: That there is a drive to change even in affluent oil-producing countries goes to show that this change is not just about economics, but very much about values, too. After all the upheavals didn’t happen in the poorest countries of the region, but in the countries where the discrepancy between the humiliation of subservience and people’s expectations was so stark that it went beyond their tolerance. Young people already had the chance to obtain an education, but they had no say over where their country was going, and in their own lives they couldn’t get a proper job or set up a family. You can imagine going to the airport, buying a ticket, checking in and getting through security – and then the flight never leaves.

People’s dissatisfaction was further exacerbated by the arbitrary and capricious behaviour of public officials, corruption and the preferential treatment of the family and friends of management. Someone else was always jumping the queue and got on the flight first. The political system offered no opportunity for change of power, or even for expression of opinion. As people couldn’t do politics, they had to make history instead.

Thirdly: The upheavals are being driven by a generation that is hungry for change. According to a recent opinion poll up to 80 per cent of youths in Arab countries outside the Persian Gulf say their most important goal in life is to live in a democracy. In Egypt, 60 per cent of the population take the view that democracy could immediately be installed in their country, and a further 30 per cent believe it would be a suitable form of government if it could be introduced piecemeal. This is important to understanding both the background to the ongoing changes and their consequences. The majority of the people driving the revolutions were not aiming to establish Islamism or any other ism – what they wanted was to get closer to the rest of the world of which they had seen so much more through the Internet, Al Jazeera and other media. The changes are also about the breakdown of the monopoly over communication: the Wikileaks revelations and the role of social media, Facebook and Twitter, have taken those in power by surprise.

There are also some similarities in the current situation with the European revolutions of 1989 and 1968. As in 1989, the changes we are seeing today are grounded in values and geared towards democracy and freedom. As in 1968, a major impetus comes from the heightened expectations and the desire for change among younger generations.

The outside world had very little influence over the start-up of change in the Arab world. But our example has certainly had some effect. In the turmoil over the past few years we might even at times have underestimated the appeal of Western values such as democracy, the rule of law and liberal market economy. In fact these are all essential to human dignity, anywhere and everywhere in the world. John Locke had it right: sooner or later it is necessary to listen to the will of the people.

II What lies ahead?

We don’t have a crystal ball. We’ve only just started on this road, and we don’t know where all this is going to lead. However there are three points that I think can justifiably be made: 1) the fundamental problems have not been resolved; 2) expectations are high and rising; and 3) we are not going to see a consistent, straightforward and predictable development.

The long-term fundamental problems are largely unchanged. Stable social development would require much stronger, welfare-generating economic performance. Over the next few years the labour force in Arab countries is expected to grow at an annual rate of 3.5–4 per cent. To create jobs for all these people, Arab economies would have to grow at the same rate as China and India. However the prospects for achieving this sort of growth are slim, for these countries are not closely integrated in the global economy. Egyptian exports are lower than Peru’s, and exports from Tunisia are lower than from Ecuador. Social institutions – the rule of law or women’s participation in society – also provide very little support for economic growth. The conflict between Israel and Palestinians, a major source of discontent in the region, remains unsolved.

Secondly, great expectations are being pinned on those who are assuming power. They will also have to answer for the mistakes that have been made over the past decades. Societies must get onto the right track as soon as possible and results must be delivered. There is also a major risk that people’s high expectations of social and economic change cannot be met in the first place. Much will no doubt depend on the outcome in Tunisia and Egypt. Both these countries can serve as examples, in either direction, for other Arab countries. People will also be more liable to pour onto the streets to demonstrate if the results are too slow in coming. Each year 650,000 young people enter the labour market in Egypt, and they have now seen the power of free expression and Tahrir Square. How much patience will they have?

The paths of social development that lie ahead are not consistent and predictable. This is due in part to the countries’ different histories or baseline situations. They will not be going down the same paths. Different country groupings will emerge. Countries rich in oil such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar will try to hold onto the old on the strength of their wealth. Other countries such as Tunisia and hopefully Egypt will move towards genuine democracy. Others will unfortunately continue to oppress their people, even increase their oppression and violations of human rights and rob people of their hope for a better future. Instability and the potential for instability will continue. It is unlikely that any country in the region can go on as if nothing had happened. The rise of Islamic movements continues to remain a high likelihood.

The changes sweeping Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989–1991 provide some point of reference as we consider the potential pitfalls and complexities on the road that lies ahead. For the main part everything seemed to pass peacefully. However the turmoil also led to the bloody wars that broke up Yugoslavia. Even the march to democracy never reached closure. Some countries turned in on themselves and became strictly authoritarian. And has this process even ended yet?

One important question concerns the relationship between values and interests. I have spent much time thinking whether the EU in recent years has paid too much attention to political and economic interests at the expense of promoting values. There are good grounds to make such a claim, although one cannot draw very far-reaching conclusions.

The Arab world is basically faced with two scenarios. In the best case scenario Europe’s southern neighbouring region will develop into a significant new area of growth in the global economy, with the societies in that region working to strengthen their democratic institutions – Arab democracy. They will suppress any violent extremist movements themselves. The value of the example of Turkey, a secular and democratic country with a successful economy, is only increasing. There’s need for more of these guiding stars and bridgeheads for democracy.

In a worse case scenario, the region will continue to be characterised by oligarchy, fundamentalism, poverty and instability, with considerable spillover effects in Europe. There is no shortage of potential threats. It is possible that the popular uprisings we have seen will transform into a religious Shiite-Sunni polarisation. This was evident in the elements to the Bahrain conflict. If this religious polarisation were to escalate into a regional conflict between Iran and members of the Persian Gulf Council, and Saudi Arabia in particular, the doors would be thrown open to a highly inflammable and unpredictable future. And what will happen in Syria? I still hope that the country’s administration will decide not to follow the path it seems to have chosen in its initial reactions.

A few words on Libya. There are no easy and safe solutions in any crises or conflicts. If there were, there would be no need for the international community. Finland’s non-involvement in the implementation of UN Resolution 1973 to restrict air space over Libya has received extensive media attention. Let me repeat this once more: we are not, and we must not become, free-riders in the international community. We are firmly in support of the principle of the responsibility to protect. We will bear our responsibility and we will contribute because it is in our national interest to develop an international system of solidarity and to gain recognition as an active participant. That is largely the basis for our international position. This is why in the case of Libya, we will again do our bit in different ways.

III Huge changes lie ahead – what do we need to do?

For the European Union, the challenges arising from the changes in the Arab world are at least as great as those that unfolded in Eastern Europe in 1989. In that case the process of change was steered in a positive direction by the membership perspective and neighbourhood policy, encouraging hard work and commitment to reform. Nonetheless it took more than a decade for this change to happen. The means applied as well as the outcomes differed somewhat from country to country. Occasional setbacks were suffered, too.

The Arab countries differ in many respects from the countries of Eastern Europe. Unlike many Eastern European countries in 1989, they do not have experiences of democracy dating a few generations back. And they are not always nation-states, but tribal and clan ties are often more important than they are in Europe. The reality of Arab countries is in many ways different. Nor do we have the use now of our biggest carrot, i.e. the promise of possible future membership of the EU.

But we still need effective means with which to help Arab countries move onto an upward path of development and to integrate more closely with Europe. Great possibilities lie ahead, and they will require great investment in effort. Let me outline three basic principles on which we should frame our policy vis-à-vis the Arab countries.

1) We must constantly bear in mind that the main responsibility for building Arab democracy lies with the locals. Even if the international community has to intervene in crises and human rights violations – as it has done in Libya – no outsider should dictate who should rise to power in elections or how a country should be developed.

2) We must be able to live with different kinds of systems. The world in the 2010s is a new kind of playing field with different kinds of economic and social systems, and the Western system is not necessarily seen as the only right one. We have the exact same setting in Arab countries – as yet there exists no model for Arab democracy. We have not yet seen the Arab equivalent of Vàclav Havel or Lech Wałęsa, who are developing democratic systems with their own personalities. We can also expect to see diverging paths of development in the Arab world. We must be able to work with different kinds of systems.

3) At the same time we need to define the boundaries of acceptable actions and support the development of systems in the right direction. The new situation forces us to define limits and boundaries: what is ‘sufficient’ democracy and what do we do in the case of those countries that don’t achieve that level? We must accept the outcomes of free elections, even if we’re not always pleased with the results. At the same time we must insist that the governments emerging from elections respect human rights. We will need to use every instrument in the EU toolbox and work to liberalise trade, harmonise economic systems and improve the framework conditions for business in the countries concerned. We also need to apply the tools of development policy and humanitarian aid. The greatest support must be given to efforts that are moving in the right direction, towards the right goals. The terms and conditions of our support must be clear, and progress on the road to democracy must be rewarded. Making good headway in the Middle East peace process will assume ever greater importance. EU policy and the messages coming from the EU must be clear: the only way to real peace is through the two-state model.

* * *

It will only be much later that the exact path and the significance of the unfolding developments in the Arab world are recorded in history. However we cannot just wait and see what the real answers will be, but we have to try and understand what is happening here and now, in the present day. And we also have to try to support and encourage change in the right direction. Where necessary the international community must also try to protect people – as is now happening in Libya.

This change presents a tough challenge for EU foreign policy – even before the machinery is properly up and running. However we have to meet that challenge. The Union needs both a strong long-term strategy and an agile practical policy. Finland will support this effort in every possible way. At the very least the EU must be able to say in the future: “It could have turned out worse.”

Thank you!