Immigration and energy dependence mean Europe is too close to afford to keep cozying up with autocratic regimes in the face of restless North African and the Middle Eastern youth.
One might be tempted to see the ousting of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as a case of déjà vu. After all, the father of Tunisian independence, Habib Bourghiba, was ousted through a constitutional military coup after doctors pronounced him unfit to rule. This time, the troops occupying the streets are there on behalf of a temporary leader, parliamentary president Foued Mebazaa, named under the Constitutional Court.
The question, as the violence increases, is whether Tunisia is truly on the road to democracy or simply experiencing just a change of power, guaranteed by the military. The hope is that it is indeed a change of regime, triggered by the popular protests of a generation of twenty-year-olds who have numbers on their side (they represent 40 percent of the population) but no jobs and no future.
The coming weeks will tell whether the uprising in Tunis will be remembered as yet another lost opportunity for brave young Arabs (and Persians), or whether it will bring about significant change under North African skies. The answer will make all the difference, not just for Tunisia, but in terms of its potential ability to affect other regimes in the region – from Libya to Egypt – all very different but with one thing in common: they are all incapable of handling a real succession -- a crucial issue for a modern state.
What's happening in Tunis represents a challenge for us Europeans too. For years we have been pretending to support democracy. In fact we have been focusing on supporting stability, under the conviction that Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak are the lesser evils compared to the threats of extremism, and their guarantee of good business ties and help in controlling immigration. This approach has brought about some temporary benefits. But it was nothing more than a game of procrastination, and this game is quickly reaching its limits. What was seen as a realistic policy is turning out to be an illusion.
The failure of the Mediterranean Union, launched in 2008 under an initiative by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, shows that Europe can no longer escape the dilemma that America has been grappling with. A dilemma whose essence is captured by this quote: "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither." The quote is from an official U.S. speech delivered in Cairo -- not by Barack Obama, but by Condoleezza Rice in June 2005. The problem is that Washington's attempts to promote democracy in recent years – whether through force or speech, incentives or sanctions – have proven unsuccessful.
Hillary Clinton showed frustration when she spoke on Wednesday in Qatar in the aftermath of yet another political crisis, and said that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand." Without a future for young generations, without a crackdown on corruption and the reform of authoritarian political systems, she said, there can be no new Middle East. Through this obvious yet brutal list, which might as well be applied to Tunisia, the U.S. secretary of state put those governments face to face with their responsibilities. But in doing so, she also evoked the limits of American influence.
What is true for the United States on the eastern front of the Arab world is true for Europe on the western front, North Africa. A key difference is, however, that while the United States can in theory consider a partial disengagement from the Middle East and the Gulf – and this is, to an extent, happening with the Iraq withdrawal – Europe cannot afford to disengage from the Mediterranean. Demographic trends tell us that the problem of immigration will not go away and energy dependence, which affects America less in relation to the Gulf (where U.S. imports are around 12 percent), continues to weigh heavily.
Between violence and hope, the challenge rising from Tunis to Europe is clear: our Mediterranean policy cannot remain an empty box. Since 1989, Europe has mostly looked eastward. Since 2008, our focus has been on the economic crisis. But starting in 2011, Europe needs to look again at the Mediterranean, but in a new way.
If Europe doesn't come up with a clear and united position on Turkey - a country that has rediscovered a central role in the Middle East and a country that Europe risks ‘losing," and if it doesn't succeed in speaking to younger generations rather than the old autocrats, it will be at the same time vulnerable and marginal – the worst possible combination.
Read the original article in Italian