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The EU and the Arab Spring: Between Spectatorship and Actorness

Throughout the first seven months of the Arab Spring, starting with the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, the EU clearly revealed itself as both an actor and spectator by resorting to both activism and passivism in a seemingly erratic fashion. Against this background and based on the EU’s recently adopted Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean, this article aims at understanding this dualism more precisely and shedding some light on the EU’s rather anachronistic foreign policy behavior in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in recent months. The article identifies five dichotomies, all of which contribute to the situation in which the EU continues to be torn between being a relevant political actor in the MENA region and a simple spectator that continues to be overwhelmed by local and regional political developments.

The EU and the Arab Spring Between Spectatorship and Actorness
The EU has sent many rather mixed messages in recent months to various regimes, ranging from praise and support to outright condemnation of the different regimes’ responses to growing public demands for greater political, economic and social rights.
 

During the last seven months, area studies and thus academic disciplines covering Middle East politics were exposed to substantial criticism, mainly by Western media, for their failure to predict what was, in fact, unpredictable, namely the fall of Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosny Mubarak. At the same time, both print and audiovisual media provided platforms for an impressive and somewhat inflammatory display of reactive policy prescriptions by both Arab and Western scholars, as well as by a considerable number of self-proclaimed experts. Interestingly, apart from being purely normative, these recommendations mainly focused on domestic politics, above all in Tunisia and Egypt, and the steps to be taken ahead of potentially free and fair elections, as well as to some extent on the civil war in Libya and the pros and cons of NATO’s military engagement there. To a large extent, however, they neglected the external and international dimensions in which these processes took place and hence it was almost a logical consequence that surprisingly little attention has been paid to the role of the European Union (EU). A similar observation is in order with respect to the lack of academic and more systematic studies of Europe’s action – or rather inaction – in the context of the current democratization efforts in Tunisia and Egypt (the outcome of which is highly uncertain), the uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, and the occasional outbreaks of civil unrest and protest in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and Mauritania. 

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