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France and the New Arab World - Speech by Laurent Fabius (June 27, 2012)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be concluding this most useful seminar on the state of play in the Arab world in the age of revolutions. My presence here bears witness to the importance that France attaches to its relations with the Arab world and to discussion with intellectuals, academics and researchers. I commend the quality of your work and thank Professor Gilles Kepel for organising this seminar and for having so kindly invited me.

On 17 December 2010, when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set alight to himself outside the local municipal office of Sidi Bouzid, no one could know that a shockwave was forming that would change the Arab world. One and a half years later, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi elected President of Egypt, the most densely populated country in the region, the face of the region has totally changed. Yes, we are definitely looking at a “new Arab world” and France needs to know how it relates to this new world.

To understand the importance of the changes underway, we need to look back a little at recent history. When the region’s states obtained independence in the mid-20th century, the Arab world was already experiencing a period of political upheaval. Although the states had won their independence, the people had not won theirs. Then, as is often the case following military coups d’état, authoritarian regimes took over with the consent or complicity of the leading powers. Decades of political status quo followed in the guise of Arab nationalism. Yet the societies continued to move forwards, or in any case to want to, paving the way for the current upheavals. These changes then form a sort of third era in the Arab world since independence. In Tunis, Cairo, Damas, Sana’a and Benghazi, the same watchword can be heard in different forms: dignity – karama.

This wind of freedom has changed our Arab and Mediterranean neighbourhood often out of all recognition, as the Arab Spring has created a striking landscape of contrasts and uncertainties. In addition to the traditional differences – the Maghreb is not the Middle East, which is not the Arabian Peninsula – a new map is emerging.

The regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have fallen and their dictators have been toppled by a unique alliance of young people, the middle class and the armed forces. For these countries, now is the time after the storm to build a fairer and more stable political, economic and social order.

In other countries, the ripple effect of the Arab Spring has prompted the authorities to set in motion a modernisation and democratisation movement. Morocco led the way in this, with Jordan more or less following in its footsteps. In Algeria, the people’s expectations are similar to the rest of the Arab world, and we hope that the new parliament will quickly implement the reforms called for.

The Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait – have become important players on the world stage and major investors. They play a sometimes decisive role in regional developments, especially in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Behind their apparent status quo lay societies fashioned by austere Islam, but also an open outlook. Public debate is surfacing and finding a voice in the press, and even the institutions.

Elsewhere, regimes attached to the status quo have responded to the protest movements with repression and violence. In Syria, massive repression, the repercussions of the country’s mosaic of communities and foreign interference have combined to produce a real humanitarian catastrophe and a risk of destabilisation throughout the region. Lebanon has borne the brunt of the spillover from this crisis and the situation in the country is very tense. In the south, Palestinian frustration is growing into a powerful force bolstered by an international outlook and good level of education. And Israel wonders how these changes will affect its own security.

Let’s add to this patchwork landscape the many sources of instability. In Iraq, the government has come a long way with rehabilitation, but a great deal remains to be done to guarantee the country’s security and cohesion and the protection of its minorities. A complicated and highly dangerous crisis is brewing in the Saharan-Sahelian region, driven by many disruptive factors – failed states, neglected outlying regions, corruption, all manner of trafficking, and heavily armed Islamist groups.

Although the Arab Spring has made some spectacular changes, the future still looks fragile and uncertain. In France and Europe, this uncertainty has prompted mixed feelings in public opinion. The democratic ambition has triggered a wave of sympathy, but the risks of political instability, their economic consequences and growing intolerance are to say the least raising questions.

In this environment, what are our hopes and fears, and what can we do? These are three questions I’d like to go some way to answering.

France is confident about the changes in the Arab world, because we believe that it is always preferable to give democracy a chance. So we are confident, but clear-sighted, because we are aware of the challenges that lay ahead today, tomorrow and in the long term. It is not in our power to guarantee the success of revolutions and we have no right to interfere in the political life of sovereign states. Yet, aware of our responsibilities, it is France’s purpose and duty to actively contribute bilaterally and multilaterally to progress with democratic, economic and societal transitions.

What are our hopes? The movements underway in the Arab societies are far-reaching and, as I have already said, complicated. They express expectations of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy, which are also our own expectations and reflect values traditionally upheld in the world, especially by France. This is why I personally welcomed these movements right from the early weeks of 2011. And it is why, like many others, I regretted that the French government at the time failed to seize the moment in this revolutionary dynamic. France – or its government in any case – was a disappointment in the Maghreb, and this disappointment was made all the greater by the stigmatisation of the wave of immigration occurring at the same time.

The French government’s failure to step forward was rooted in the past. For decades, despite all those who knew what the situation was in many Arab countries – robbed of power, human rights flouted, the press gagged, and endemic corruption and unemployment – the choice was to support authoritarian and even dictatorial regimes to guarantee stability in the region. Yet authorities based on fear and repression merely give the illusion of stability, which inevitably ends up coming apart at the seams.

The great hope raised by the Arab revolutions is one of an Arab world living in peace, stability and prosperity in democracy and freedom.

I believe this hope is possible. The revolutions have shown us an Arab world attached to freedom, in search of dignity and looking forward to political and social rights. Where we have sometimes ourselves given the impression of doubting our democratic values by settling for the status quo in the Arab world and elsewhere, these revolutions remind us of the universality of these aspirations.

I would like to express here my admiration for those trade unionists, human rights activists, bloggers, students, civilians and also soldiers who have had the courage to rise up against repression by cruel powers built on corrupt systems. I refer in particular to the selfless actions of those who, in Syria and elsewhere, fight daily at the cost of their own lives.

The movement is now underway. The wall of fear has fallen. For the first time since gaining their independence, those who were considered more as subjects finally feel like citizens. Societies in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen have shown their will to take their future in their own hands where many believed them incapable. And in this, they have disproved the old Western assumption, frequently steeped in colonialism, that there is a congenital incompatibility between democratic aspirations and the Arab world – implying here the Muslim world.

In fact, this democratic wave is driven by a universal aspiration that is part of Arab history. In the first half of the 20th century, the Arab world ushered in a liberal age in countries where it was possible to establish constitutional and parliamentary practices. These democratic experiences themselves originated in the 19th century cultural and intellectual renaissance movements – the Nahda. These periods were peppered with powerful popular, social, patriotic, and largely secular, protests. Today’s protests are their heirs in many ways, even though their forms and scale are not the same.

Far from always being the sign of opposition to other cultures and other values, and contrary to the misguided prophecies of a fatal clash of civilisations, the Arab revolutions are actually largely behind a reappropriation of what we all have in common. They are a timely reminder that Islam is in no way incompatible with the democratic ambition.

So the hope we can have is that the Islamists voted into power will make constructive compromises in their government, will prove capable of making the transition from opposition to ruling party, will respect the context in which they were elected, will make a success of their countries’ economic and social development, and will help reduce extremism.

What are our fears? We fear that, having made so many sacrifices to get into government, these new authorities may, when the time comes, refuse to hand over the reins to others. We fear that they may not manage to relinquish the culture and practice of monolithism rooted in years of repression and sometimes underground movements. We fear that their foreseeable economic and social problems may radicalise them. In short, to put it bluntly, we fear that the ticket they have been given may turn out to be one way with no possibility of, if not return, at least change.

The immediate situation takes in a whole host of concerns including the electoral processes in the Maghreb, the rise of radical Islam, the often serious threats hanging over fundamental rights, especially women’s rights, and Syria and Mali.

Many democrats fear that their revolution will be hijacked. In largely conservative societies, people often look to radical Islam, for one, and the army, for the other. In Islamist circles, resolute opponents to the multiparty system can be found alongside true democrats. Caught between religious resurgence and societal conservatism, women’s rights often come under attack, as do those of religious minorities.

In Libya, for example, the situation remains unstable and the government is finding it hard to make its mark. In Syria, the carnage continues daily at the order of the chief butcher, Bashar al-Assad. An estimated 1.5 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. Already, over 100,000 Syrians have fled their country and are now refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, a situation threatening these countries’ balances. In Bahrain, popular protests and regional security concerns have given rise to a crackdown.

One of the risks is to see a revolution prevented or hijacked, to face huge disappointment after such high hopes. There is political disappointment in the case of a hijacked democratic process. Then there is the economic and social disappointment that comes when revolutions initially trigger a negative economic impact, especially on tourism and foreign investment. The revolutions have also rekindled internal tensions in the Arab societies: social and religious tensions, tensions between modernity and cultural identity, and tensions between conservative societies and their more liberal educated young people. In Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the entire Near and Middle East, the historical divide between Sunni and Shi’ite – itself a long story – is a defining element alone.

So can Arab societies resolve their tensions in a civil, pluralist and peaceful manner, in a word, democratically? Or, faced with the risk of conflicts, will they opt for supposed “stability” by reinstating authoritarian rule, possibly less stereotypical than the previous rules, but hardly more democratic? These are just some of the alternative scenarios and questions that are taking shape.

Personally, I believe that being over-pessimistic would be just as inappropriate today as being over-hopeful about a swift transition to Western-style democracy might have been yesterday.

We should never forget that all democratic processes are necessarily long term, with advances and setbacks, momentum and hurdles, and doubts following promises. The course of revolutions is never totally linear. In our own history, the Restoration followed the French Revolution. After 1848 came the Second Empire. And after the Commune of 1871 came the Ordre Moral period, marked by religious resurgence. Nowhere has democracy ever come about in a day.

And I would add that there is no one democratic model, that it is up to each country to build the model best for itself. Political formulas should be tried out – consider Turkey – that combine traditions with new forms of participation, specific references with universal principles.

With hopes and fears mixed, what can we do? This is my third question, and one which a government needs to answer. In the face of such a complex and ambivalent situation, France – as a neighbour, friend and historical partner – has a responsibility to be supportive. Yet it is also in our interest to defend. The Arab world is our neighbour, and everything that happens there has direct consequences for us. From an economic standpoint, the Arab world’s stability, in view of its resources, is a decisive challenge. There is no other reasonable choice for us than to work for the stability, peace, security and economic development of these key partners.

We will do so while upholding four major principles: rejection of the use of violence against the people, defence of fundamental rights, respect for the multiparty system and the rights of minorities, and the need for extensive reforms to meet the people’s economic and social needs.

In the short term, our priorities are dictated by emergencies. In Syria, the ongoing bloody crackdown claims new victims every day. France is actively working to put an end to the violence. On Monday, we decided with our European partners on a new raft of sanctions to step up pressure on the regime. Talks are continuing, particularly among the Security Council’s permanent members, to find a way to implement the Annan plan. This calls for firm action from the Security Council, possibly via a resolution under Chapter VII. France has invited more than 150 states to a meeting of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in Paris next week. Our purpose is to support the opposition and prepare for the political transition, because Bashar al-Assad must go.

The situation in Mali, and the Sahel in general, is another emergency. If we do not take action, northern Mali could turn into a permanent haven for terrorists. So we are working actively here too on restoring security and constitutional order. We are supporting the efforts of the African Union, ECOWAS, Europe and the United Nations to foster security and development. Mediators are at work and security assistance is being prepared. The response to the terrorist threat calls for regional co-operation to halt these dangerous and highly mobile groups. France is working on initiatives for this in support of the regional initiatives and the legitimate local authorities.
Iran remains a serious concern for us. Naturally, this great country has the right to use nuclear energy for civil purposes. But its possession of a nuclear weapon would bring with it serious risks of proliferation and would destabilise the region. This is a major challenge for us all as it is for the neighbouring countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. We are continuing to work with these countries and Security Council members to get Iran to agree to comply with its international obligations.

We are also keeping a close eye on the situation in the Middle East, where it is vital to resume the peace process to bring stability and peace to the “new Arab world”. The changes at work in the region have raised new expectations among the Palestinians, which could change the conditions for Israel’s security. It is in no way given that we should fail to make progress toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a potential source of radicalism in Muslim societies. We cannot really expect to make much progress in the run-up to the American elections. Yet we do need to pick up the initiative again, since the right to a viable Palestinian state and the security of Israel is not some abstract mantra. It is a pressing need for the world, the entire region and France.

In the medium term, France means to support democratic transitions wherever they are launched. There is no better guarantee of peace and stability than democracy. This principle – in a break with certain practices in the past – should form the backbone of our engagement. We will support both the democratic potential of the Arab revolutions and the expressed will to establish political participation. We will stand by the peoples who aspire to democracy.

This principle naturally raises the question of method. A desire for emancipation from anything remotely resembling domestic or foreign oversight permeated both the initial spark and the driving thrust of these revolutions. It is up to each of these societies to find their own way and no one – especially not a third country – can do it for them. So we will steer away from any paternalism, even, if I may use the expression, “pro-revolutionary paternalism”.

Yet we will be pragmatic and firm. France is proactive in recognising the legitimacy and diversity of democratic representations and in talking to those who head them. It would be absurd, wouldn’t it, to be more particular about the democratic processes underway than we were about the old dictatorships in the past? And it would be just as absurd to refuse to speak to legitimate, elected authorities when we talked to dictators in the past.
At the same time, we need to stand firm on our values and be clear-sighted about events. France will uphold its freedom of judgment and will speak up if and when it feels it should. Yet we will do so with our eye on the fact that democracy also implies respect for two great principles:

-  Firstly, the fundamental freedoms – equality before the law, freedom of expression, women’s rights and minority rights – are inviolable. We will pay particularly close attention to respect for women. It is a question of dignity, but also progress for society as a whole. If the Arab world is to have every chance on its side, it needs to give women their rightful place.

-  Secondly, no society can be free without the possibility of alternation of power and a multiparty system. So we will condemn any attempts to hijack power and restrict democratic rights. Respect for a multiparty system is especially vital since Arab societies are often ethnically and religiously diverse. The rights of minorities must be protected.

Our priority will be to support the new citizenry by speaking to societies rather than purely governments. We will also need to talk to the democratic movements, associations working to defend rights, especially women’s rights, and movements working for education, culture and economic development. This support covers more than just diplomacy. It will go much further than that. We mean to see all number of student exchanges, meetings of intellectuals and academics, discussions among associations, and forums for business and business heads at all levels making the most, in the Maghreb at least, of our societies’ strong interconnections.

Broadly speaking, the democratic transitions will be all the more viable if they manage to meet the real, human and potentially explosive economic and social expectations. The revolutions have exposed massive needs in the Arab societies: access to common goods for all, fair redistribution of wealth, better living conditions, and economic development. It is a well-known fact that youth unemployment is one of the main catalysts of the Arab revolutions and one of the major threats to what follows. In Tunisia, for example, the unemployment rate for young graduates is way over 30%. Growth would have to post at least 5% to absorb all the new labour market entrants every year. This is not, or not yet to this extent, the case.

In this economic and social sphere, we – and Europe – can and must strongly support the changes underway. It is their future and ours that is at stake here. Youth employment, education and training, regional development, productive investment, eradicating inequalities and environmental protection: meeting these needs is vital for the future of the Arab societies. What is at stake for us is the stability of the entire region, the future of mobility between the two Mediterranean shores, the future of our trade, and the future of the French-speaking world. Our futures are clearly linked.
As you know, the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, has made youth, justice and growth the three priorities of his stimulus policy for France. Significantly, these priorities are – in a slightly different, albeit similar way – the self same priorities espoused by the Arab Spring.

We are therefore naturally converging toward a mutually supportive approach across the two shores of the Mediterranean. Youth, justice and growth should be the core focuses of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership we hope to build. I emphasize youth in particular, which implies a priority for education and vocational training in addition to culture and academic exchanges. The recent repeal of the notorious, shocking Guéant circular [restricting non-EU graduates’ right to work in France] came as a first welcome sign for France to demonstrate its ambition to be a “smart power” by contributing to the training of the leaders who will build the Arab world of the future.

These priorities also form part of a long-term vision: we want to help build a sort of major Euro-Mediterranean entity, as a significant asset for Europe and the Arab world in this globalised world. We will need the right tools to do this, which means taking stock of the state of play and making the necessary changes and adjustments.

The Union for the Mediterranean was based on a noble, but clumsy ambition. It was probably unrealistic to want to involve both shores of the Mediterranean in a rigid union that wilfully glossed over any differences, disagreements and even conflicts on these shores. And the choice of Mr Mubarak and Ben Ali as figureheads did not demonstrate keen foresight. The ambitious UfM did not make it past the first hurdles. Yet we should make the most of its secretariat, which has proved its worth, and manage concrete co-operation projects.

Rather than reworking the institutional project, I believe in the “variable geometry” method of co-operation to bring together countries willing to work on given projects. We need a range of formats to meet the diversity of situations and to implement concrete co-operation projects now. We need to see to it that the Deauville Partnership keeps its promises to financially support the economic and social development of the transition countries.
France shares a special responsibility with the Maghreb countries. As neighbours, we should work together to build an area of co-operation and trade between the two shores. Yet it is also vital for Europe as a whole to be part of the partnership with the Arab world. This is why France will assertively promote this Mediterranean priority to our European Union partners in keeping with the original spirit of the 1995 Barcelona Conference.

In this project, we will also need to be resolute regional integration players since we know, as Europeans, the benefits that peace can bring. The Arab Maghreb Union can be revived on the strength of warmer relations between Algeria and Morocco and a strong Tunisian will. Beyond the Mediterranean rim, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) is coming into its own. The EU regularly dialogues with the Council. We should take this further and engage in a real partnership.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the “new Arab world” is here. It is a diverse, sometimes disconcerting world full of advances and setbacks. Yet it speaks for the most part the language of freedom, which we hear loud and clear in our country. This is fortunate for France, whose language was, and could still be, as Jacques Berque put it in 1956, “the Hellenism of the Arab peoples”. And I proudly use the words of this great Arabist, spoken at a time when France’s position with the Arab peoples was much more sensitive, to illustrate what this new Arab world means to France today. “It is,” he said, “our duty to contribute to young freedoms, if only to make room for ourselves there. The audacity of proclaiming the future of the French-Arab thing at a time when many, among others and among ourselves, are destroying it, seems paradoxical. I support this paradox...”

And I, too, support this paradox: the prospect of independence yesterday finds a resounding echo today, with the Arab uprisings seen as an extension of the struggles of fifty years ago. This Arab spring, this spring, threatened in some cases with autumn and winter, reminds us of the close bonds between us. Millions of our compatriots’ families are from this part of the world. In the Maghreb countries, our language is spoken daily alongside Arabic at many levels of society. History and our co-operation have given us an image of a nation with a liberating culture. Our country’s traditional stands for the legitimate rights of peoples, despite some lapses, have brought us lasting friendships. We should nurture these friendships, rekindle them in some cases, make good use of them too, and be worthy of them always.

Despite some dark moments in the past, our history with the Arab world is essentially a shared history. The Arab revolutions are writing a new page in this historical association with France as a smart power. We have a duty to write it together in friendship and partnership with the Arab peoples and to turn the Mediterranean into a flourishing area of cooperation and mutual benefit.


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