After the Revolutions: Europe and the Arab World

Franco Rizzi

Professor of European and Mediterranean History at the University of Roma Tre

Our view of the revolutions in the Arab world is bedevilled in much of Europe by archaic, post-colonial attitudes. If we cannot shed them and continue to think only of material gain, we shall remain on the sidelines and watch the Arab awakening turn into a twilight of renewed discontent and desegregation. Looking at the revolutions which have taken place in southern countries, one has the impression that a ghost is roaming the world and for the first time in the modern era is moving from South to North. Symbolically, this it is not insignificant. It is the carrier of old and new things, but the most important thing is that it goes round saying change is possible.

In his book El Negro en Ik[1], Frank Westerman tells an incredible story that might be set in the nineteenth century, and yet we know it happened near Barcelona in 1992. It was an important year for Spain: there was the Seville Universal Exposition and the Barcelona Olympics. A Haitian doctor, Alphonse Arcelin, was on a chance visit to the Darder Natural History Museum, named after its founder, in Banyoles near Barcelona. After pausing in the rooms containing birds, reptiles and gorillas, he entered a room and walked up to a case in which there stood a stuffed black man. Westerman, who had made the same trip, writes in his book: “We weren’t at Madame Tussaud’s museum. We weren’t admiring an illusion of reality: this bushman wasn’t a plaster cast made to give us the shivers, nor a mummy chanced upon in the peat or elsewhere. It was a human being, skinned and then stuffed as one does an animal. Someone had done it, and evidently, given the state of international relations, the taxidermist had to be a white European, and his subject a black African.”

The account continues with the reconstruction of the story of that bushman, where he came from and how he came to be in the Darder Museum in Banyoles. The Haitian doctor, horrified at the sight of that stuffed man, organized a protest to attract the attention of the Olympic delegations because the Spanish authorities had thought of displaying the statue as a tribute to the visitors to the pavilions decked out for the games. The bushman was almost immediately removed from public view after the protests of several ambassadors, but the controversy between those who wanted the bushman to stay in the museum and those who protested against this barbarous act dragged on for several years. Finally, in 2000, the Spanish government decided to put “El Negro” on a night flight to Botswana where he could be buried.

The impulses that affirm the values of liberty, democracy and fundamental human rights coexist with an ideological dead weight, the conviction of our superiority over other peoples

One might ask what all this has to do with the Mediterranean, and the revolutions we intend to reflect on and interpret. Apparently nothing. However, the story is typical of a cultural pattern impregnated with racism, and reveals, as I see it, a rooted conviction not only of Spanish superiority but of the white race as a whole. The persistence of these cultural patterns inevitably influences our behaviour and our attitude towards minorities. To explain the link between that story and the Mediterranean requires a further reflection on the situation of Europe. This, to my mind, is characterized by contradictory forces: the impulses that affirm the values of liberty, democracy and fundamental human rights coexist with an ideological dead weight, the conviction of our superiority over other peoples. We must not forget this frame of reference in which the Barcelona Conference opened in November 1995 in the presence of political representatives of 27 states: 15 from the North and 12 from the South of the Mediterranean. The event was billed as a turning point in politics between the two sides of the Mediterranean and everyone hoped it would be. Official EU documents contain a rundown of the objectives the Conference and its final Declaration intended to achieve: “This declaration is the founding act of a global partnership between the European Union and 12 countries of the southern Mediterranean. The aim of the partnership is to make the Mediterranean a common space of peace, stability and prosperity, through the reinforcement of political dialogue and through security and cooperation – economic, financial, social and cultural.”

The situation in the early 1990s was strange. There was “El Negro” in Barcelona, the flaunted certainties of the Declaration, the hope – not without some basis – of being able to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rightly considered the principal cause of instability in the Mediterranean region. Then there was the euphoria of the end of the Cold War, the spread of religiously-motivated ethnic nationalist conflicts, sustained by the insane conviction of the need for social cleansing. There was also the Gulf War and the death of Itzhak Rabin, assassinated on 4th November 1995, 33 days before the official opening of the Barcelona Conference. It is an incomplete picture of the period, certainly, but one from which we can intuit the contradictions in which EU functions were debated, characterized by voluntaristic Mediterranean politics, fascinating in its formulation, but without foundation because it lacked, as Pierre Vidal-Naquet would say, a solid link between memory and the present. How is it possible to imagine new and diverse links with the southern Mediterranean without entertaining memories of colonization, overcoming the politics of oblivion and of rose-tinted memory? The problem is a weighty one, but no one – Europe, the West – can shed it. Rather, the inclination is to find catchier formulas such as that of Barcelona, which identified southern Mediterranean countries no longer as developing, or no longer, in the catchiest wording, as other non-community countries, but as partner countries of those on the northern shore. They are wordings evocative of a status without foundation, great for any congress.

Guido Piovene wrote a slim volume with the evocative title Processo dell’Islam alla civilta occidentale.[2] It cited the debate of the same title, organized in 1955, at the Fondazione Cini between Francesco Carnelutti, Pasquale Saraceno, Giorgio Bausani, Francesco Gabrieli, Giorgio Levi della Vida and others, and as many prestigious Arab Muslim intellectuals. One particularly notable speech was that of the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, who summarized his thoughts on colonialism thus: “Westerners were disciples of the East; then, overtaking it, they became its masters and oppressors at the same time. The West taught the Orient methods of scientific research, awoke the world of Islam, made it aware of its rights; but at the same time oppressed it. We need to identify the guilty. Not guilty the scientists, the true men of thought. No opposition between Christianity and Islam; no case against Christianity. No need to blame religion for the sins that Christians commit; they sin against their religion when they colonize Islam without justice or charity. Even the people are innocent, the true repository of civilization. The fault is entirely that of politicians, businessmen, industrialists, bankers, the promoters and authors of colonization. A hypocritical colonization, inasmuch as it assumes the pretext of saving, redeeming, benefiting the backward countries… Even vanity is to be blamed, in that westerners believe they count for more in the eyes of God.”[3]

In the face of an analysis of this kind we need to ask if the politics of Europe towards the Mediterranean show any signs of overcoming these cultural patterns. What is the current intellectual climate in which we read this Mediterranean reality? Take for example the speech given by Nicolas Sarkozy on 26th July 2007 in Dakar. After having written off colonialism as an unhealthy aberration of the past that should not be dwelt on, the former President of France, brooding on the past, started to list certain folkloric aspects of Africa, while reiterating the supremacy of Europe, which represents “the aspiration to liberty, to emancipation, to justice,” unlike Africa which chases “fixed” dreams. For Sarkozy this position is confirmed in the case of Algeria, where, according to him, good politics means turning over a new leaf. That works on the condition that we read all the pages of the book and do not merely flick through them, getting to the end without understanding anything. Nor should we forget Jacques Chirac’s attempt with the law of 23rd February 2005 to introduce teaching in schools that underlined the positive aspects of French colonialism.

Our Italian cousins supported this militancy with silence, a silence broken by some intrepid academics and by Angelo Del Boca who could not, however, tarnish the myth of Italiani brava gente. The colonial history of Italy has largely slipped into oblivion with harmful consequences for younger generations, who are offered the humiliating spectacle of embraces and hand kissing between Gaddafi and our former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The dream of realizing a Mediterranean region characterized by peace and shared wealth was shattered by the various contradictions that marked the work of the EU

However incomplete, we can say that this was the working framework in which the Mediterranean political policy of the EU was devised. So it is no wonder that in 2005 the celebration of 10 years of Barcelona took place in a muted tone, with limited participation from the countries on the southern side. The dream of realizing a Mediterranean region characterized by peace and shared wealth was shattered by the various contradictions that marked the work of the EU, above all by the lack of a foreign policy based on a profound rethink of relations between the two sides of the Mediterranean. One cannot be both master of democracy and liberty and, to safeguard one’s own interests, an accomplice to the most ruthless dictators. Seeing the failure of Barcelona, the European states did not analyse the causes of such failure but rather geared up for a policy that, in their view, had to protect them from floods of immigration and from Islamic terrorism. It is a move that somehow makes all the more explicit their support for the policies of Gaddafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Assad and the monarchies of the Gulf, with the argument that these strong men and their regimes would have guaranteed the security of Europe.

Sarkozy thus disposed of the Barcelona Process and was the key creator of a new political formula for relations between the two sides of the Mediterranean, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), inaugurated in Paris on 13th July 2008. His enthusiasm was not shared by the governments of the two sides and, apart from the photo-shoot that crowned the co-Presidents Sarkozy and Mubarak, the tone of the speeches extolled the alleged concreteness of the UfM compared to Barcelona by highlighting certain projects that should have been realized. The Arab press greeted the initiative with a certain coolness, not to say hostility, as demonstrated in the article by Abd al Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 12th July 2008 under the revealing title, “The Aim of the Mediterranean Union: to Tame the Arabs”. He writes: “The dialogue between the Mediterranean peoples and among its leaders has mostly occurred with the sword, and continued in that way until the middle of the last century, when the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean were subject to French, British and Italian colonialism. Today we see on the horizon an attempt to change the tools in order to realize the same objectives in a way which, to all appearances, could seem more civilized … We are in favour of any relationship of cooperation between the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries and the northern Mediterranean countries on the condition that such cooperation occurs on the basis of equality and safeguards the shared interests of both parties, without any form of supremacy and without giving rise to a master and slave relationship. Nevertheless, what we are witnessing now is the re-emergence of a European hegemonic vision that regards the southern countries as an enormous reservoir to be exploited on a commercial and human level, and as a golden opportunity to divide up profits.

What we are witnessing now is the reemergence of a European hegemonic vision that regards the southern countries as an enormous reservoir to be exploited on a commercial and human level

Since the earliest phases of its construction, Europe has regarded the Mediterranean with a mixture of voluntarism and a sense of guilt stemming from colonial and post-colonial policy. This, however, has not stopped it thinking up interventionist policies for those countries on the southern side that would favour their development while remaining anchored in a colonial-style logic. At the same time, political discourse was gearing up along ideological lines that did not take account of the trauma these countries had suffered following imperialist European foreign policy and subsequent decolonization. As with other painful episodes in Europe’s past – the Holocaust for example – no one ventured to embark on undoing this tangle. Implicit in the dream of a global policy that would place the Mediterranean in a European framework was the contradiction I talked of earlier, now revealing itself in the highlighting of abstract political policy to which the southern countries had to adhere.

The Barcelona Declaration of 1995 was the textbook example. Contrary to the usual arguments, its failure did not depend on a technical incapacity to realize concrete things, but rather on its lack of a political vision; it relegated the tangled memory of the past to a page of history to be turned over or forgotten with all possible speed. After World War II, the principles of liberty and democracy advanced in the European civil conscience, but the fact that they were not applied when it came to countries on the southern side of the Mediterranean governed by bloodthirsty dictators was an impediment: business is business. Then again, what else was there to do other than dress up old behaviours with an ideological discourse in which entire generations of young people have believed: “Make the Mediterranean a sea of peace and shared wealth,” read the Declaration. But nobody knew how to do it. The ideology came from one side, the history from the other.

In this setting, Islamic terrorism has thrived. It has intervened with its politics of terror in every attempt to finalize any initiative in dialogue and paradoxically it has become a factor in western politics built on fear of extremism, whether well founded or spurious. This state of affairs has legitimized a series of intellectual frameworks through which we westerners have viewed the Arab Muslim world. In this context it did not even seem extravagant to ask if Islam was compatible with democracy at all, let alone organize conventions and meetings on these themes: nor did we have any problem coining the leitmotiv of the incompatibility of Islam and the West, and coming to the related conclusion that the clash of these civilizations was inevitable. The exporting of democracy combined with the war on terror was the argument used to justify the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

What has remained of this load of clichés in the light of the revolutions in the Arab world: those that have been successful, those in progress, those, as in Syria, that have registered thousands and thousands of deaths without the state being able to silence the popular rebellion? The prism through which we continue to read the Arab Muslim world has collapsed, and we westerners find ourselves exposed in the middle. This is the real reason why we cannot do anything other than chatter about possible Islamic drifts. Yet again, thanks to our Eurocentric spirit, we try to persuade leaders that it would be desirable for these countries to undergo a profound change, so that spring does not collapse into bleak winter. What concrete forms of aid is the West organizing – and I am not talking only about economics and finance – by way of ideas and support in this delicate period of transition? One hears only the deafening sound of silence. The stage livens up only when first Sarkozy, then David Cameron, then Recep TayyipErdogan go to Libya to assert the pre-eminence of their intervention, reminding Libyans that their countries should have a privileged place in sharing the wealth of that tormented territory. History teaches us nothing.

The prism through which we continue to read the Arab Muslim world has collapsed, and we westerners find ourselves exposed in the middle

If it is true that the biggest deficit in our society is the lack of a strategic vision of the Mediterranean in the light of the Arab revolutions, if it is true that the intellectual framework with which we have always read politics and the development of society on the other side is obsolete, we need to gear up if we want to understand where the Mediterranean is going. In his preface to my latest book, Mediterraneo in rivolta: dalla penisola Arabica al Maghreb e ritorno,[4] Lucio Caracciolo writes: “The tsunami that has shaken the Mediterranean and the Arab world signals the end of a long status quo, a situation determined by the defeat of all the European powers – France and Belgium included, even though formally victors – in World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, the process of decolonization was carried out, in many cases more apparent than real. The western powers, under the semi-protectorate of the United States in the form of guarantees of last resort against the Soviet threat, begin to concede independence to their Arab or Middle Eastern ex-colonies. They install authoritarian regimes everywhere. Presidents and monarchs can do what they want to their populations as long as they guarantee privileged access to energy resources to westerners and avoid opposing them on the international stage.”

“Indignados” protest in Madrid (Mehdi Chebil / Polaris / Contacto).

This policy with which the West had constructed its securities has crumbled in the face of the revolutions in the Arab world. What remains of the instruments of analysis with which we have judged and classified the Arab world? What does the rallying cry, propagandized in every possible way, that the mission of the West was to export democracy mean today? And what remains of the danger of a clash of civilizations, the argument we adopted to interpret any position that did not conform to our cultural patterns?

Not a lot, because the revolutions of the Arab world, however particular and diverse from country to country, are not characterized by an anti-western spirit, but have aimed, after years of failed attempts, some of them clumsy, to find their physiognomy of population in a legal and anthropological framework, sometimes given and frequently denied by external and internal intervention. In the current state of the process of transition this aim has not been achieved for various reasons: among these, as in every revolution, are the interests linked to old regimes; new ones, such as religious elements, staking their claim without fear of being repressed on the political scene; newer ones still, such as the forces who protest in every town square but who have not yet succeeded in establishing a stable political representation. We look at all this and have no idea what to say. Of our political security, our analysis, our ideological conviction of the importance of the Mediterranean for the future of Europe, very little seems to remain. It is true we are going through an economic, political and cultural crisis of vast proportions and are distracted by these problems. Despite this, the attitudes of the past, when we taught and explained to the Arab world what it had to do, remain. So our amazement, mixed with anxiety, focuses on the electoral victories of Islamic elements and we attempt to analyze whether or not they will follow the Turkish model of state organization. Doing this we lose sight of the most important characteristic of these revolutions: the revolutionary process is not yet over, as Syria demonstrates; the anxieties of the Gulf monarchies; and the general instability of the region. We think that one political formula rather than another is capable of bringing the revolutionary process to a close. The countries of the southern Mediterranean have undergone a profound shock and the shocks that may follow will be long and difficult to predict because they will affect those states that have apparently been spared up to now.

One has the impression that a ghost is roaming the world and for the first time in the modern era is moving from South to North. Symbolically this it is not insignificant. It is the carrier of old and new things, but the most important thing is that it goes round saying change is possible.


[1] Amsterdam, Olympus, 2004.

[2] Milan, Oscar Mondadori, 2001.

[3] Cf. Rizzi, F., L’Islam Giudica l’Occidente, Lecce, Argo Editrice, 2009.

[4] Rome, Castelvecchi RX, 2011.