Where are you heading, the Arab world?
A thriving democracy or an old oligarchy with new leaders? No one can know what will be the final outcome of the popular uprisings in the Arab countries. This was the opinion shared by the participants in the open discussion organised by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs at the House of the Estates on Monday, 4 April. In the event, Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb and Finnish ambassadors expressed their views of the happenings in the Arab World.
At the moment, about twenty Arab countries are undergoing fierce social turmoil. Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb is of the opinion that this is a historic situation: it is an ongoing fight for civil rights against oligarchy. No one could have foreseen the rapidly progressing chain of events, even though everyone knew that the administrative systems oppressing citizens were not resting on solid foundations.
Likewise, no one can know what is to be expected. According to Stubb, there are two future scenarios for the Arab World. In the best-case scenario, Europe’s southern neighbourhood will develop into a region of growth with a thriving democracy where violent extremist movements are kept in check. In the worst-case scenario, the region continues to be characterised by oligarchy, poverty and instability, the repercussions of which are visible as far away as in Europe.
Internal disintegration of countries a threat to popular uprisings
According to Ari Kerkkänen, Director of the Finnish Institute in Damascus, both scenarios presented by Stubb will be realised. Even though Arab countries are often treated as a single entity by Western Countries, the about twenty countries are different from each other, and thus also the final outcomes of the turmoil will differ from each other.
Still, similar factors can be found behind the popular uprisings in the various countries.
“The Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al-Quds University, located in East Jerusalem, made recently a felicitous remark that the two most important matters in any society are equality and freedom. The lack of these two ignited the change in Tunisia and Egypt,” Kerkkänen pointed out.
According to Kerkkänen, for a long time, the citizens of Arab countries have suffered, on one hand, from frustration over the social situation of their own countries, and, on the other hand, powerlessness before the influence of the outside world. Lack of freedom, and the violations of civil and human rights also explain the rise of religious radicalism in the area.
Kerkkänen reminded that religious and ethnic division lines running across various Arab countries may turn the popular uprisings in destructive direction. Signs of this have already been seen in Bahrain, where the uprising has transformed into a confrontation between the Shiites and the Sunnis.
In Syria, the divide is between the Christians and Sunnis, and between the Arabs and Kurds.
“In Syria, sufficient and quick reforms - revocation of the state of emergency and enhancement of the opportunity to register parties in particular - can still prevent emergence of a similar chaos as in Iraq. However, a similar road as in Tunisia and Egypt is unlikely,” the director of the institute located in Damascus, the capital of Syria, points out.
“The change is irreversible”
According to Tiina Jortikka-Laitinen, Finnish Ambassador to Tunisia, the threat of political disintegration is visible also in Tunisia, where more than 50 parties have already registered for the elections to be held next summer. The influence of the old power structures can still be felt in the country, which causes uncertainty about the future.
“In Tunisia, the change is irreversible, but it takes a long time for it to take root. What is happening in the surrounding areas will also have an impact on the development,” Jortikka-Laitinen said in her address.
According to the Ambassador, the European Union has supported the Arab countries in the change toward democracy relatively well, but more could be done.
“The EU lacks a strategic vision for the North African region. The Union has been well involved in the events, and made commitments to provide financial and political support. However, the region is still often regarded simply as a part of the balancing act of the EU Neighbourhood Policy, where the eastern and southern neighbourhoods are competing over EU attention.”
According to Roberto Tanzi-Albi, Finnish Ambassador to Egypt, the Facebook generation has lost some of its grip on the revolution in the country, but the glass is still half full. Egypt’s traditional status as the leading Arab nation makes the situation in the country especially interesting.
“If democracy becomes established in Egypt, the chances of democracy coming true in other Arab countries as well will increase,” Tanzi-Albi highlighted.
Finnish people interested in the happenings in the Arab countries
The turmoil in the Arab world interests the Finnish audiences, as the discussion organised by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs attracted enough people to fill two large lecture halls in the House of the Estates.
In addition to the persons mentioned above, other experts answering the many questions from the audience included Kirsti Kauppi, Director General of the Department for Africa and the Middle East, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Anne Sipiläinen, Finnish Ambassador to the EU Political and Security Committee, Per-Mikael Engberg, Ambassador to Israel, Kirsti Eskelinen, Ambassador to Turkey, Matti Lassila, Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Antti Rytövuori, Ambassador to Morocco, Pia Rantala-Engberg, Head of the Representative Office of Finland in the Palestinian territories, Harri Salmi, Ambassador to Iran, Jarno Syrjälä, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Risto Veltheim, the Roving Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.