April 28, 2011
The ongoing turmoil in the Arab world is sadly being shadowed by a relatively minor refugee crisis. There are a lot of misgivings voiced in the media and even in the blogosphere about the negative impact that Arab revolutions have on Europe. Unfortunately, such attitudes are being put to good use by the European buddies of Arab dictators under pressure, who, in spite of their public statements, are in fact deeply unhappy with the way events are unfolding.
The geopolitical analysis of developments under way in Maghreb could be of great assistance, however, in putting events into the right perspective.
To begin with, the revolutions have started in Tunisia, informally labelled “the 28th state of the European Union”. Tunisia’s political leadership role is by no means accidental. Throughout history, Maghreb in general and Tunisia in particular, had been closely associated with European empires. In the introduction to his Philosophy of History, Hegel noticed that whilst certain geographical landmarks like mountains divide cultures and civilisations, seas or sometimes even oceans bond them together. The Mediterranean, as a classic example, has for long been a veritable liquid freeway uniting southern Europe – the cradle of today’s Western civilisation – to North Africa. In other words, even if geographically Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya are part of North Africa, or from a racial, cultural and religious point of view part of the Arab world, geopolitically they belong to the European sphere of influence. The Ottoman hiatus notwithstanding, Maghreb territories – whether as provinces, protectorates or départements – had been ruled, in one way or another, from Rome or from Paris.
To have a better grasp of the importance of geopolitical analysis in understanding current developments in North Africa, consider Turkey. From a geographical or historical point of view, Turkey had had a long involvement with Europe. This is the basis for its application to become an EU member state. Unfortunately, for the representatives of the Washington consensus for whom geopolitics is only of minor importance, the situation is not that simple. The Turkish geopolitical reach has always been stronger in Islamic lands, from the Middle East to Central Asia. Its European possessions are the result of a centuries-old military confrontation with European powers. The latter defeated the Turkish empire in the first decade of the 20th century and pushed it back to its Anatolian cradle. One of the spoils, incidentally, was Libya, which came under the authority of Italy until 1951. In other words, instead of pushing Turkey clean out of Europe, its North African possession Libya was deemed far more valuable by the West. Again, if the Turks might conceivably claim they belong in Europe geographically, from a geopolitical perspective they definitely do not, and the current Turkish geopolitical agenda reflects that reality.
The fact has important implications for the EU’s enlargement program, especially in the light of the expected democratisation of Maghreb. The question will be – which of the Islamic countries would be best suited for admission into the European Union in the foreseeable future : 80 million-strong Turkey, who had failed to conquer Europe and is now being pushed by the United States and Israel to become an EU member; or the 75 million-strong Maghreb community of states, which had had a much longer and deeper association with European political structures and culture ? As an added geopolitical incentive for Europe, Maghreb boasts Africa’s largest oil producer (Libya) and one of the world’s largest natural gas suppliers (Algeria).
It is not by accident, therefore, that France has taken an early lead in trying to stabilise the situation in Libya, or that Turkey, for that matter, is the key player in the events now unfolding in Syria. For quite a long time, the geopolitical spheres of influence of both have more or less been clearly defined in North Africa, or the Middle East, respectively. Western strategists would have to take this into consideration when deciding which country would be better suited to help in a particular area.
We tend to overlook, these days, that the four countries from Maghreb have been independent for a mere half century. Alas, independence has not truly worked for any of them. Morocco is led by an absolutist king who personally controls some 60 percent of the country’s economy and who follows a pre-modern, acquisitive geopolitical agenda in Western Sahara. Libya is under the yoke of the Gaddafi family, which has long been a menace for the security interests of Western countries. In Algeria, if a Mayotte-type referendum would be held tomorrow, who’s to say that the population would not prefer to be administered as a French département again, instead of being ruled by its own ruthless military junta ? As for Tunisians, they have made no secret of the fact that European integration is their ultimate goal and they are busy adapting their economy and most of their institutions in order to qualify for it.
Accordingly, it would be immoral, not to mention counterproductive, to be ambivalent about the current pro-democracy protests that have engulfed the Arab world. I vividly recall that the 1989 revolutions had brought similar misplaced fears to the fore, which focused the public’s attention on the wave of refugees that accompanied them. The economic performance of newly democratised European countries did suffer for a number of years, but eventually they successfully made their transition work and are now integrated as full EU members. To be sure, the only people who have a vested interest in fanning misgivings against the Arab revolts, beside the utterly clueless or the misinformed, are those who had benefited from the largesse of the deposed dictators. The temporary unpleasantness created by the refugee crisis should not deter the rest of the Europeans from supporting the Arabs’ drive for freedom and democracy.Florian Pantazi