Catherine Field: Arab Spring spiralling into gloom

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Europe is battling a mix of alarm and gloom as it eyes the post-revolutionary crisis in North Africa, concluding that its early plans to steer the region on to the path of prosperity and democracy are dead.

Policymakers are bracing for years of turmoil in Egypt and Libya, although the outlook for Tunisia is more optimistic, and sense that Europe will have to play a longer and more strategic game, say analysts.

"We are witnessing a revolutionary process, and this will take at least a decade," says Karim-Emile Bitar of the Institute for Strategic and International Relations (IRIS) in Paris. "When you talk about a revolutionary process, you are talking about revolution, counter-revolution, attempts to hijack the revolution - and this is exactly what is happening right now."

In Egypt, several hundred people have been shot dead since the army ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.

On Tuesday, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, held emergency talks in Cairo with the leader of the coup, General Abdelfattah al-Sisi, and opposition politicians. She was also able to meet Morsi in custody.

Libya is mired in chaos, riven by fighting between pro- and anti-Islamist militias in which tribal factionalism is adding a dangerous spice. At the weekend, Benghazi was rocked by bomb attacks, a mass jailbreak and the storming of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood after an anti-Islamist leader, Abdul-Salam Al-Musmari, was gunned down.

In Tunisia, the Islamist-led transitional government has proposed holding general elections on December 17 in a bid to defuse a crisis sparked by the killing of two secular opposition leaders in six months. Thousands have taken to the streets.

"This type of violence is largely unprecedented, and the response [by the people] is equally unprecedented," said Amy Kallander, an assistant professor of Middle East history.

The 2011 Arab Spring saw European countries cut ties with authoritarian rulers with whom they had had cosy relationships, sometimes for decades. These leaders successfully played the security card, warning of terrorism, anarchy and mass emigration if their regimes were toppled. After their downfall, the European Union rushed to assemble a package of political and economic incentives to offer the post-revolutionary governments.

Under its "Southern Neighbourhood" plan, the EU offered grants and soft loans worth nearly 6 billion ($9.8 billion) to support the economy in a region where unemployment, running at one in three among the young, is a huge source of discontent.

The underlying principle of the plan was "more for more," meaning that more help would be disbursed as countries gained credibility in rule of law, tolerance and pluralism.

But the scheme was dependent on having credible, accountable governance in countries with no recent history of such a thing. It swiftly ran into the inconvenience of the ballot box.

In Egypt and Tunisia, voters narrowly elected governments with an Islamist agenda and no economic competence, while Libya remained rudderless without a de-facto national government at all.

Assessing the Arab Spring countries at the two-year point, the European Commission warned in February that worse may come. "These transitions will of course be difficult and will take time - measured in years instead of months - and setbacks may well occur," the EU executive said in a memo that pleaded for "strategic patience and timely support."

Some analysts now believe Europe's only real option is to let the North African wildfires burn out and try to limit problems from security and illegal immigration.

"There are no mechanics at European level to allow rapid decision-making and to rapidly put in place an ambitious policy. They [the EU] will basically micromanage the crisis rather than have a grand vision," Bitar told the Herald.

What will emerge from the mess? Will it be the golden future of Arab democracy that Europe clamoured for in 2011? Or more of the past?

"I do not think that the US and Europe have a lot of attractive options," said Nathan Brown, an expert on Egypt at George Washington University, referring to their discomfort at seeing Morsi get elected and then violently overturned.

"At this point, Egypt's dominant rulers are military and security figures with bloody hands, and that makes business as usual a bit difficult," Brown said. "Ultimately, I think Western countries will accommodate themselves, rightly or wrongly, to any stable outcome in Egypt. But I don't see a stable outcome any time soon."

- NZ Herald

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