Egypt Protests Fuel European Media Criticism Of U.S., E.U. Indecision
As the Egyptian protests continue, the European Union, like the U.S., has cautiously voiced its support of an Egyptian transition to democracy while the European media, however, has been more vocal in its criticism of President Hosni Mubarak—as well as of the U.S. and European Union's reactions to the upheaval.
In the last several days, both the U.S. and the European Union have acknowledged the need for democratic reform in Egypt. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for “an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people.” Similarly, on Monday, the E.U. High Representative Catherine Ashton released a statement that spoke of the need for a “peaceful way forward based on an open and serious dialogue.”
The European media, however, has been more assertive in its coverage of the unfolding situation in Egypt. On Friday, Jack Shenkar of the Guardian used strong language to describe the political situation under Mubarak.
“This generation of dissidents…have rejected the moribund landscape of formal politics that has ensnared many of their liberal elders since Nasser’s 1952 revolution.” He went on to describe the protestors as challengers of the status quo “not content to feed on the crumbs of free expression thrown by the Egyptian regime.”
However, it is not just Mubarak who has drawn criticism. In the wake of the Egyptian protests, many European media outlets have also criticized Western governments—both for their longtime support of friendly authoritarian regimes in the region (like Mubarak’s), as well as their cautious responses to the protests, which many see as carefully constructed to satisfy public opinion, rather than a strong call for the respect of human rights.
“Despite their [the U.S. and European] differences, they agreed on one point: it is better to have a stable authoritarian regime than a democratic government led by Islamists,” wrote Jacques Hubert-Rodier in a recent piece for Les Echos.
Turkey, with its ties to the Arab world and a population that is between 97 and 99 percent Muslim, provides a unique and valuable perspective here. Though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, like the E.U. and U.S., has called on Mubarak to “meet the people’s desire for change”, an opinion piece on Monday in the Turkish newspaper, the Hurriyet Daily News, was more forceful in its evaluation of the Egyptian situation and made a point of noting the role the U.S. has played.
“Israel and the United States…are the two most concerned countries in terms of what is happening in Egypt right now,” the op-ed said. “They have never supported democracy in the region because they have been afraid that if they did, it might inadvertently leave them in the role of acting as a midwife for an Islamist victory.”
Addressing the American response thus far to the Egyptian protests, popular British political blogger, Michael White, described it as characterized by “cack-handed caution.”
“The new line from Washington this weekend speaks of ‘an orderly transition to democracy’, a formula which sidesteps the delicate matter of Mubarak’s survival while backing reformist elements which currently appear to have momentum,” White wrote.
Indeed, though diplomatic cables made available through WikiLeaks have elicited praise for the U.S.’ private diplomatic efforts to free political prisoners and improve human rights in the region, many have expressed frustration with the American government’s hesitancy to respond with more force publicly. This frustration seems to have grown to encompass the E.U.’s response as well, despite Ashton’s statement on Monday.
“Europe cannot afford to miss this mark,” Hubert-Rodier wrote Monday. “It successfully mobilized after the fall of the Berlin wall, so why not today? This weekend’s joint statement by David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy calling for a regime change in Cairo is a step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done…in order to help the people through the post-Ben Ali and perhaps, post-Mubarek eras.”
The question of exactly what a post-Mubarak era would look like has, as in the U.S., become an important point of debate in the European media. It is impossible to broach this subject without acknowledging the West’s fears that a regime change could lead to a more fundamentalist Islamic state. Unlike its American counterpart, however, the European media appears much less apprehensive of the Muslim Brotherhood, a key opposition group outlawed under Mubarak.
BBC Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen, wrote from Cairo, “The country’s only properly organized mass political movement outside the ruling party is the Muslim Brotherhood, and it would do very well in any free election. Unlike the jihadis, it does not believe it is at war with the West. It is conservative and non-violent.”
Others, however, are less certain that the Muslim Brotherhood would emerge as Mubarak’s natural successor. Furthermore, many have expressed the belief that should the Mubarak regime fall, there exists the possibility that a more militant, fundamentalist leader could exploit the situation and rise to power. Such a change would drastically transform the position of Egypt—which has become a reliable, and Western-friendly, voice for moderation and compromise in the region—and threaten to upset U.S. interests in the Middle East.
“Right now, that situation [that the Muslim Brotherhood should exploit the protests to come to power] seems far-fetched,” wrote Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, for BBC News. “The Brotherhood is trying to jump on the bandwagon of a youthful and largely leaderless protest movement…They are trying to catch up. But the situation is volatile. New leaders – nationalist or Islamist, civilian or military – could emerge if the country is engulfed in chaos.”
The European media now finds itself, along with the rest of the world, questioning the significance of the Egyptian protests—not just for Egypt’s future, but also for the future of the entire region.
“If the Mubarak regime were to collapse,” Hardy wrote, “…for Arab protesters, it would be a great boost, fuelling the idea that the region has entered a new era of ‘people’s power’”. He also notes, however, that it would pose a whole host of new questions and challenges—from the future of the Middle East peace process, to a change in Middle East-Western relations.
Reach reporter Alice Highman here.