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Arab Politics & Western (US and EU) Foreign Policy

23/05/2012, Rome

On May 23rd, John L. Esposito from Georgetown University discussed the impact of the Arab Spring on Arab politics and Western foreign policy.

Initially, Esposito stressed the importance of listening to public opinion polls. This is particularly important for breaking the myth of Arab politics promoted by authoritarian regimes and the West alike, that Muslim countries cannot by nature be democratic. By accepting the regimes’ ideology of ‘Muslim democratic exceptionalism’, the West refrained from promoting an effective democratization process in the MENA area.

Esposito also maintained that other governments in the region have radically changed their behavior towards their populations for fear of revolutionary contagion. Specifically, Morocco and Jordan have increased their democratic façade by promoting “royal” civil society groups, while Gulf states have resorted to a mix of subsidization and repression to quell public unrest.

Esposito argued that past authoritarian regimes, with the indirect support of the West, are to be held responsible for the broad success of religious parties in the recent elections. Of the independent political and civil society forces repressed by the governments, religious groups were the only ones that survived. Hence, organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia were able to gather consent amongst the population.

In this regard, Esposito stressed the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda. The former’s fine tuning of a series of “hierarchical survival techniques” in order to coexist with the regime limited its ideological advancement. The latter, having had its leader in exile in Europe for over twenty years, engaged instead in cosmopolitan and pluralistic debates.

Finally, Esposito illustrated US foreign policy vis-à-vis the MENA area in the pre-election period, claiming that the US wishes to “work with both sides” and “lead from behind”. This consideration led to an analysis of Europe’s role, or lack thereof, in the region. In particular, aid to the region was discussed. The debate, still open, focused on the prospects for aid conditionality in an era of assertive independence in the region.

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