By Marine Begault
Developments in the Middle East over the last year – including the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – have left most Europeans perplexed about what relationship they should have with North African countries in this changing social and political landscape.
Prior to the uprisings in the region, Europeans had become accustomed to maintaining peaceful relationships with North African countries. Our international relations, policies and interests held great priority and often overshadowed domestic issues like poverty, unemployment and inequality. Today, in a changing international landscape, we must remember that we cannot simply stand by and applaud the end of these dictatorships; we Europeans need to actively foster new relationships with the people and governments of this changing region.
One group of people is crucial to creating these new relationships between the two regions. With roots on both sides of the Mediterranean, diaspora communities originally from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt residing in Europe are key to building bridges across the Mediterranean between Europe and these nations.
Relations between Europeans and North Africans have been difficult in great part because of the history of European colonialism. Memories of defeat and injustice, neglected commitments and silenced conflicts are appearing as a result of the changes and surge of freedom in the region. We, as Europeans, had become accustomed to maintaining peaceful relations, friendly and narrow, with countries led by ruthless dictators who sometimes preserved and nourished these relations to the detriment of their people’s freedom.
Suspicion remains on both sides of the Mediterranean. In the global South, communities and governments are wondering if the West will truly support the process the countries of the Arab Spring have started. In the North, many European political and media leaders are concerned about the paths these new democracies will take and where their governments will stand in relationship to them.
A sincere and open dialogue between European and North African countries needs to take place so that they can establish an honest and equal relationship. For Europeans this implies the need to talk about our own mistakes and demonstrate that we are willing to re-examine our history and work towards developing a sense of shared history.
Diaspora communities can be at the foundation of a reconciliation process that deals with memories and history. Because of their undeniable connection and relationship on both sides of the Mediterranean, they carry great weight in reminding us of this history and the role that it continues to play in the relationships we have today. They can serve as a bridge between the Mediterranean’s two shores and mediate this relationship. They have the understanding to interpret history and misconceptions, as well as to anticipate and address doubts, fears and painful memories.
Various non-governmental organisations and associations in Europe and the Arab world are also beginning to see the need for dialogue, a deeper understanding of the “other” and reconciliation over past issues on an international level. Indeed, the development of such a relationship involves holding a substantive dialogue and the realisation that both sides are dealing with complex realities.
Initiatives, such as the citizen exchange programs funded by the Anna Lindh Foundation which aim “to bring people together from across the Mediterranean to improve mutual respect between cultures”, strive to promote a sense of shared vision between Arab and European civil society organisations. Another movement, Initiative Dialogue, a programme of the French organisationInitiatives et Changement, or Initiatives of Change, promotes intercultural dialogue through conferences and aims to create spaces for dialogue where collective memory, and misconceptions about the “other” can be tackled.
Individuals that are part of diaspora communities can understand the subtleties and complexities of both sides and can help to build and forge relationships because they have experienced and are part of both cultures. They are essential to maintaining and developing a dialogue and shared vision for the future of European-North African relations.
We need to think about the future of this Mediterranean relationship as a whole and acknowledge and support the essential connections and bridges the diaspora can provide.
Marine Begault graduated from the University of Manchester with a BA in history and politics and is now working for Initiatives of Change, a peace building and good governance NGO in Paris.