By Tibor Hargitai
JTW conducted an exclusive interview with Dr. Laszlo Csicsmann*, the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Institute for International Studies at the Corvinus University of Budapest, on the current situation in the Middle East.
Q: Does the EU have a unified view on the Arab Spring and the role the EU should play in it?
A: In my view the EU doesn’t have a common view on the Arab Spring. First of all, the question of Libya and Syria is very different from Egypt. So the countries and the events were different. Of course we can speak of the Arab Spring in general terms, how very positive the process of democratization is, the transition process in Egypt and Tunisia, but the case of Libya and Syria are more challenging for the European Union. And I think the most important question is the interest of member states themselves. Especially the Mediterranean part of the European Union, which is very close to the Maghreb states and, of course, should play a key role. Stability is the most important for those states because of the economic and trade links on the two sides of the Mediterranean. So I think that is very important. On the other hand, for the EU, it is a normative community, not only a community of common, unified interests but also of different norms like democracy and human rights. And it is written in the main documents of the European Union to play a role, to extend the area of democracy and human rights. It is even written in the European Neighborhood Policy. So, this is a paradox in my opinion. First stability and second is democracy. And we do not know the trade-off between stability and democratization.
Q: And this leads to a less effective position? EU doesn’t know what to formulate exactly?
A: Yes, it is very difficult to say something, because we don’t see the outcome of the transition process, for example in Egypt or in Tunisia. Yes, of course, the EU has the possibility to influence those events for example through the economic contribution to Egypt or Tunisia or other states. Politically as well as economically, the EU can have a role in those countries but we still don’t know the outcome of the events. For example in Libya the rebel groups are very fragmented. In Egypt too the revolution is very, very complex. The alliances which were formed by several political parties are very fragmented and complex, in Tunisia too. So it is not easy to say something concrete on those things.
Q: Are we following the United States in EU policies, or not so strictly as in other fields?
A: I think not so strictly, but of course, there is a common view about the events. But the United States has a slightly different position in the Middle East. It seems that the U.S. has been losing its key position in the Middle East because there are other players, not only the Union and the U.S., but also China, India and Russia are also very dominant players. And the U.S. will be one of these players and not the only one, considering the historical dimension of it. So there is a change from that perspective and the EU is more affected by the events of the Arab Spring; like the refugee situation and the oil and natural gas links between the European Union and the Maghreb countries. And for the EU the stability is very important.
Q: Do you see that there is a fear in the European Union of anti-Western sentiments in the new Arab countries, or the fear of the Islamization of the society?
A: In my opinion the fear is not the anti-Western sentiments, because if we followed the events in Egypt or Tunisia the protestors were not anti-Western at all. It was very positive and it was not about the role of foreign countries, it was about the internal situation and the internal political developments. On the other hand, yes there is a certain fear about the Islamization of the Middle East. Because after the election in Tunisia, in Morocco too, the so-called PGD, Party of Justice and Development won the elections. And in Egypt too the bloc, the Democratic Alliance, has very good results in the first round, as was expected by the opinion polls. And in Libya too, the Islamist movement was part of the rebel movement and played a greater role in Libya. In my opinion as an expert, Islamization is not the greatest fear of the EU or the Western world. But the problem is that most of the members of these movements, like the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt for example, were socialized under the Mubarak era, which was not democratic at all. And maybe they don’t know the democratic games, the political rules of democracy. And in my opinion, they don’t behave like this. For example, the founders and the secretary general of the Freedom and Justice Party were appointed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the old movement. It is not independent at all. And the young generation was not appointed, but the pragmatist but older generation in their 50s, [a step] which was criticized by the young members of the Brotherhood. And I think this is fair. For an outsider it is very clear they want to keep the secular character of the state, because they say they cannot impose sharia on the state and they also refuse to label themselves as Islamic parties. Rather they label themselves as civil parties with an Islamic perspective, like the Turkish AKP. However, I have heard many opinions from Arab intellectuals saying that this is only a kind of double speech. Yes, in their rhetoric they refer to the AKP model, the Turkish model, but on the other hand they follow the Iranian model, as these Arab intellectuals say. I think this is a kind of exaggeration because, in my opinion, they cannot copy any model, neither the Iranian nor Turkish model. And they have their own model, a kind of Arab model for these Islamist parties. But it is a challenge for the future.
Q: So the question is whether they would accept a loss in the next elections.
A: Yes, this is the question. And we also don’t know what the real meaning of these elections is. Yes, they will draft a constitution, but for example in Egypt we don’t know the future role of the army forces, which I think is the main question. So, we don’t know the real importance of these elections. Yes, it is very important, but we don’t know the outcome of this political game.
Q: It seems that Iran and Turkey have been in a competition for influence in the new Arab states. Who do you think is now gaining a larger role, because Iran has found the support of some Egyptian generals who mentioned that it is their closest non-Arab ally, but how do you see this competition?
A: So, as you mentioned the map of the Middle East is now changing and we cannot give a clear answer to this question. First of all, the situation from the perspective of Turkey: Yes, Turkey now has a very positive role in Arab political developments. This is positive on the one hand, but on the other hand, it is a very dangerous thing, especially now during or after the Arab Spring. Before the Arab Spring it was really very positive. The “zero problems towards neighbors” policy of Davutoglu was, we can say, successful. Not only economic ties but also political and touristic and other ties flourished among these states and the Arab public opinion became very positive toward Turkey’s role, which is, I think, very positive. Yes, the common point was the isolation of Israel etc., but now the Arab Spring affected this success. It is a dangerous game to impose sanctions on Syria, which is the very close neighbor of Turkey With very close economic ties. Now we really don’t see what the outcome of these events will be, because it harms the economy of Turkey as well and maybe the image of Turkey.
On one hand, yes, Turkey’s growing political influence in the world requires more responsibility like this, but on the other hand it maybe not be in line with the interests of Turkey because nobody can see the outcome of the events. This is the main problem. If it wants to cut its ties with the Assad regime, it can do it, but maybe after two or three years it may still be there. And this is the main problem. That is why the EU has a very sensitive approach regarding what to do with the rebels. For example, in the case of Libya, it was France that first recognized the rebels, but only after several months the European member states followed, not at the first opportunity. And in Syria, the other problem is that there is no unified rebel movement such as in Libya. And this is also a problem—what is to be done with the different rebel movements? And, yes, Iran is there in Syria, influencing the situation. In my opinion, if I have to say which the more successful model is, I guess Turkey is more successful because Turkey tried to keep ties with the Western world. Most of the Arab countries are very dependent, economically and politically on the Western world. So it’s not possible to cut the Western ties and this is maybe the failure of the Iranian influence in the states. And this is a problem for Syria, because Syria underwent serious economic liberalization in the last years before the revolution. I don’t know if I can call it a revolution, so the uprising. And they become more and more dependent on the European economies, and this is maybe a problem if we speak about the medium or long term, and in the era of globalization it is not possible to cut the ties. And I think that this is very important and Turkey has a positive role in that aspect.
Q: So do the Arab countries see the Iranian regime as being too radical, and that they are cutting their ties with the Western world?
A: Some regimes yes. There is a fear in Saudi Arabia; I think this is the most important question. The King of Jordan, as we know, started to speak about the Shia crescent in 2003. And of course there is also a fear about the nuclear question and the Shiatization of the Middle East. For example in Egypt, there is a debate about the influence of the Shia religion. Because many, many Sunnis became Shias and this is the influence of Iran, so yes, there certainly is a fear.
Q: You wrote an article in 2007 about the political liberalization in Jordan under King Abdullah II. Just having a look at this country, do you think this is a stable state? Is King Abdullah managing the state or are there fears and protests?
A: Today, I had just finished an abstract for a conference dealing with these issues. And in that abstract I wrote about Jordan and Morocco. In my opinion the two countries, which were called “civic myth” monarchies by Mehran Kamrava in an article, are monarchies very different from the Arab republics which were affected by the Arab Spring, but also different from the Persian Gulf monarchies, which have rentier economies and more stable political systems. So it is in the middle. It seems that the economies of Jordan and Morocco are very vulnerable but on the other hand, the political institutionalization of Jordan and Morocco is more stable and positive than in Syria or in Egypt. So in my opinion, the foundation of the state is very different too. For example the King of Jordan says that the Hashemite Dynasty is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. Two, in Morocco the king owns the title of Amir al-Mu’minin, which means the Commander of the Faithful and is a very prestigious religious title in the Muslim world. So it provided a more stable foundation for the state and both kings managed to calm down the protestors. Of course the strategy was the same, to reward the protestors with economic and political promises; for example in Morocco the constitution, public referendum and elections. It was the first time the king asked an Islamist to form the government. And in Jordan too, the king offered the Islamic Action Front Party, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood, to join a national unity government, but it refused. The king also promised to change the constitution and the election law. It seems that the protestors never asked or debated the legitimacy of the monarchies or the monarchs themselves, which is very different from Egypt where the protestors wanted to oust Mubarak. But it seems that this is taboo in Jordan. Today, nobody asks King Abdullah II to leave his position. This is not possible, because it is a monarchy.
Q: But is there some form of civil participation in politics?
A: Yes. It is one of the most liberalized states in the Middle East, as well as Morocco. Civil society is flourishing, there are many political parties. From the beginning, the Islamic party was legalized and not banned as in Egypt. And also the Western image of the monarchy is very positive. So there is not much of the kind of criticism as in Egypt or as was in the case of Libya and Tunisia. This is a very positive example for the European Union in the field of the neighborhood policy.
Q: Are we talking about real survival politics in the two cases, Morocco and Jordan, or to a lesser extent?
A: Well, yes, it is not an easy question, but of course from the perspective of the two monarchies, yes, it is a kind of survival strategy. But I think in reality that is true to a lesser extent, because in my opinion these regimes are more stable. They have the option to influence politics and manage the situation.
Dr. Laszlo Csicsmann is the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Institute for International Studies at the Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary. He is among the best experts in Hungary and Eastern Europe on the Middle East and the Islamic civilization. He has been in most of the countries in the Middle East, as well as to Turkey and Pakistan. In 2007 and 2010 he conducted field research in Jordan.