The U.S. and Europe’s Arab headache


By Andrei Fedyashin

Friday, a day of prayer and piety in the Muslim world, has become a day of protest. The quasi-revolutions that ousted the authoritarian presidents of Tunisia and Egypt are multiplying, with protests spreading to Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco.

Egyptian troubles

After Friday prayers, the faithful do not go home. They don’t go to coffee shops or hookah bars. Rather they gather to express their anger over the present order, or they take their grievances to the street like their brethren in Egypt and Tunisia. Protestors have already been killed or wounded in Yemen, Libya and Bahrain.

The outbreak of discontent across the Arab world is so intense that everyone is waiting to see which regime will fall next.

Bahrain is currently causing the most alarm. This island nation, smaller than Moscow, was considered one of the most stable Arab states until recently. In February, Bahrain celebrated the 10th anniversary of its “democratic transformation,” when the ruling Khalifa dynasty declared the nation a constitutional monarchy. In 2006, another democratic outburst shifted the weekend from Thursday and Friday to Saturday and Sunday. Another reform, clearly inspired by Western values, was to allow bars, where Western experts working in bone-dry Saudi Arabia could go for a taste of freedom. But political parties and trade unions are still banned there. Its two-chamber parliament exists only to rubber stamp the laws submitted by the government, headed since 1971 by Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the uncle of reigning King Hamad al-Khalifa.

Last week, troops wounded and killed protestors while trying to break up demonstrations in Manama, the country’s capital.

Whom to support – allies or protestors?

The situation in Bahrain is more precarious than in Egypt, with its fairly homogeneous society. Bahrain is riven by the divide between a powerful Sunni minority (25% of the population, including the royal family, all top officials, the army, police, and big business) and the oppressed Shiite majority (75% of the population).

There will be no Egyptian-style revolution in Bahrain. If it were not for Tunisia and Egypt, and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody would have even noticed a revolution in Bahrain, let alone civil unrest. The country is simply too small, and it lacks the huge oil reserves of other small Gulf states.

But now people are taking notice, especially in Saudi Arabia, Omar, Qatar and the UAE, which are stuck somewhere between a closed and open society. The authorities in Bahrain can use Iran, the Shiite bogeyman in the region, as an excuse to crack down on the demonstrators. And indeed, Tehran does not hide its support for its religious brethren in Bahrain and Iraq.

Bahrain also has a geopolitical insurance policy against revolution. The island nation hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, the bedrock of the U.S. security strategy in the Persian Gulf.

The Americans are suffering from a split personality, encouraging protestors in Iran on the one hand, while taking a more cautious line in Bahrain. It’s a fairly common disorder among countries. This is perhaps the most difficult dilemma of real politics: whether to support the repressive ally or the revolutionary masses?

Geopolitically, is much closer to the Middle East (in involvement, influence, and financial and military potentialities) than all of its geographical neighbors in Europe. Now the Americans will have to figure out how to hold onto its useful dictators in the region without antagonizing the Arab people who are fed up with them. It’s a diplomatic challenge that requires extreme delicacy. President Barack Obama recently urged all rulers to adopt “certain universal values.” The president’s detractors say this is an absurdly limited goal. It’s like building a parliament building and then calling yourself a parliamentary democracy, which is exactly what Bahrain has done. The fact is that almost all the countries that support U.S. strategic interests in the region are devoid of “universal” values not to mention specific ones. Flooding these long repressed countries with democratic values would mean destroying the foundation of stability in the region.

Europe prepares to fight back

Europe’s pain is even worse. It is worried that the instability across the Mediterranean will unleash a flood of illegal immigration to the Old World. They fear a repeat of what happened right after the collapse of communism in1989.

The first alarm bell went off when Italians detained 4,000 Tunisian refugees on a boat in the Mediterranean in early February.

Italy and Malta were the first to respond to the alarm. They are now calling for an emergency EU summit on illegal immigration and defending Fortress Europe from an onslaught from the south. A conference of foreign ministers is scheduled for February 24-25 in Brussels, although EU officials insist that it is all but impossible to prepare a summit so quickly. Moreover, Berlin, Paris and London are not as worried as Rome about the scale of the “invasion.” Silvio Berlusconi demanded that Italy receive an additional 100 million euros for “processing” the detained illegals and sending them home, or 25 thousand euros per capita so far, which seems a tad excessive. But Rome and Valetta are now supported by other countries on the front line, such as Spain and Portugal, which are the closest to Africa. The EU has already outlined measures to protect its borders.

The concern is not unreasonable. There is no doubt that Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco are in for a difficult period of adaptation. Nevertheless, experience shows that fleeing across the Mediterranean for the sanctuary of European values is not the best way to escape Arab instability.

Russia’s bad luck

The Mediterranean has never been the main route for immigrants illegally entering Europe (except for Spain). The bulk of illegal immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia make their way through the Balkans, Ukraine and Russia.

Some 260,000 people applied to be taken in as political refugees in Europe in 2009. According to EU data, between two and four million immigrants are living in Europe illegally. And Russian law enforcement agencies estimate that in the mid 1990s between five hundred thousand and 1.5 million illegal refugees from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka entered Russia en route to Europe. European experts believe that this can happen again, albeit on a smaller scale. So Russia should not hold its breath waiting for visa-free travel with the EU, not with our porous southern borders and the Arab world in upheaval. As always, the circumstances are against us. First it was the financial crisis, and now it’s the Arab revolts. How unlucky we are!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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