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As Europe watches Arab unrest, fears over oil, migration shade its response

Some have criticized Europe for responding slowly to the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, though the EU was quick to condemn Libya's violence.

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"The Obama people played this well," says Antoine Sfeir, director of the Middle East Journal in Paris. "Obama understands the Facebook generation. But in the European popular mind there's been a tendency to view this through an Islamic lens. In fact, we are arriving back to the fundamental 14 points of President Wilson in 1917, and self-determination. The EU needs to rethink its checkbook diplomacy to the Middle East and engage in things like funding schools."

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Europe’s overall reaction has largely been divided, with Germany, the United Kingdom, and Nordic nations hailing change much earlier than France and Italy, where popular concern about the Arab world, Islam, and immigrants is higher.

British leader David Cameron was the first EU head of government to visit Cairo two days ago, en route to a long-planned trip to Gulf states for a controversial sale of British arms.

But in Kuwait, Mr. Cameron today offered a mea culpa for decades of British support for Arab dictators. At the Kuwaiti parliament, he refuted the argument underpinning Western policy that “stability required controlling regimes and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk … we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.”

In Cairo, Ms. Ashton promised $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt as part of a strategy of civil society building.

While informed opinion in Europe recognizes the two uprisings as having decidedly secular roots, there are perceptual hurdles, particularly in France. (The foreign minister was conspicuously absent today in a French delegation to Tunis led by Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, after 40 anonymous French diplomats published a joint condemnation of the North African policy of President Nicolas Sarkozy.)

"Europe talks about democracy day and night. Then, when it comes, all we want to talk about is the [Muslim] Brotherhood," says a Paris analyst, pointing to the cover of a popular French weekly that features a veiled woman holding an Egyptian flag with a headline: "Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria … The Islamist Specter."

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