By Edward McMillan-Scott - 6th February 2012
Unfortunately, despite all the progress made towards democracy, the whole region still suffers from acute problems of poverty and unemployment
Edward McMillan-Scott is calling on the EU to fully support the Arab spring’s push for deep, political revolution in the crucial months ahead.
January 2012 saw Tunisia and Egypt celebrate the first anniversary of their historic revolutions, which turned the eyes of the world to a region previously doomed to dictatorship. I was fortunate to be the first EU politician to get to Cairo, the day after Hosni Mubarak fell. I have been in the region five times since to encourage reform.
In Tunis, thousands of people flooded into Bourguiba avenue in the centre of the capital, while, days later, millions gathered at the now iconic Tahrir square, where only a year ago people from all walks of life were asking for ‘bread, freedom and dignity’ - their basic human rights, something unprecedented in Egypt’s history.
In December, the European parliament awarded the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought to five Arab spring activists from across the region: Asmaa Mahfouz (Egypt); Ahmed El-Senussi (Libya); Mohamed Bouazizi (Tunisia); Ali Ferzat (Syria) and Razan Zaitouneh (Syria), recognising the efforts of all those who struggled for dignity, basic freedoms and political change in the Arab world.
Unfortunately, despite all the progress made towards democracy, the whole region still suffers from acute problems of poverty and unemployment, and society is split over the rise to power of Islamists who were banned from public life under the dictatorships. Women are also still marginalised, despite playing such an important role in the revolutions.
The limitations of our influence were exemplified by the horrific news that, human rights activist and journalist, Mona elTahawy, was brutally beaten, sexually harassed and detained for hours without medical care in a Cairo prison by the supreme council of the armed forces (SCAF) police, only hours after she spoke (via a video link) at the Sakharov prize human rights conference and debate.
Recently, the military rulers have made a series of ‘concessions’, intended to appease protestors and mislead the international community but I continue to argue that the SCAF have become a major obstacle to democracy in Egypt and we should be doing more to ensure that all obstacles introduced under the former Mubarak regime should be lifted. This would include allowing Ayman Nour, whom I freed from political prison in 2005, to run for president and a complete lifting of the emergency law, which is still, de facto, in operation and hinders freedom of all citizens to voice their opinion without fear of prosecution.
The recent celebrations were equally a reminder that the Arab spring is an unfinished revolution as frustration from the lack of progress was clearly manifested by disenchanted groups, all laying claim to ‘their’ revolution. Despite the first democratic parliamentary elections held last autumn, there is still a long way to go for the region to reach stability and we should do everything to promote the democratic development of the region.
The EU democracy initiative, which I founded in 1992, is one instrument, which differs from other EU funding tools as it operates with or without the consent of the host country government, meaning that the instrument is exceptionally well placed to support the development of local civil society organisations as well as individual human rights defenders.
The European parliament continues rightfully and successfully to champion human rights defenders and equally highlight human rights abuses, but we must do more to ensure that the EU as a whole supports the Arab spring, especially in the crucial months to come, and helps the region to conclude its social revolution with a democratic political revolution.
Edward McMillan-Scott is parliament vice-president for democracy and human rights