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Liberal Democrat News 30th September 2011

September 30, 2011 10:39 AM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Arab Spring - democracy for some

Extraordinary times need extraordinary measures. With the fall of Ghaddafi, a swathe of North Africa is on the path to democracy and human dignity - the watchword of the Arab Spring. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels and hope for the best. Britain's role was decisive, and right. The European Union - and other member states - for too long relied on business as usual, with a string of despots.

I have always believed that one day the Arab world would throw off its shackles and have travelled widely there to encourage reformists.

In 2004, the Egyptian liberal El Ghad ('The Future') party was founded by Dr Ayman Nour; he was imprisoned for it. I got Nour freed by standing up to his tormentor, the speaker of the Egyptian parliament. Today, the speaker is in the same prison - indeed the same cell - once occupied by Nour. Despite continuing tension, Egypt is getting ready for a democratic future.

In Cairo, as elsewhere, the Arab Spring was often led by young, educated activists using social media to organise revolt. Britain and the EU should be backing reformists in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen today. If this means new mechanisms for the EU, modelled on the Westminster or Washington democracy promotion foundations, so be it.

One of the important lessons for the Arab world from Europe's 1989 revolutions was that the EU was not engaged in the struggle for reform. The EU Democracy Initiative (EIDHR), which I founded in 1992, helped to destabilise Milosevic. It has become bureaucratic. We need the courage of our convictions today, and a sharper edge.

Moreover, the EU needs not only to support civil society but also political parties and foundations in reforming countries. Contacts between Europe's politicians and the Arab world are now developing into active support and engagement. The liberal group in the European Parliament [ALDE] has just sent one of its most experienced political staff members to open an office in Cairo. Koert Debeuf, former chief of staff to Guy Verhofstadt, group leader, will help to coordinate the liberal and democratic forces across the region.

Islamist parties across the region are going to stand, and in some cases do well, just as Christian Democrats do in Europe. I observed the 2005 parliamentary polls in Egypt and, despite the gerrymandering, it seemed that the Muslim Brotherhood - standing as independents - were supported by some 20 per cent in Cairo, and their support is greater in rural areas.

The first free poll is likely to be in Tunisia in October. Too many parties - over 100 - have been formed, but the international secretary of the Liberal Party, Mariem Hedhili, assured me last month that merger talks are well under way.

The EU office in Tunis is working actively with the authorities and civil society to make sure the polls are held to the highest international standards. The Arab Spring really has led to democracy - but still only for some.

Edward McMillan-Scott is Vice-President of the European Parliament for Democracy and Human Rights

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