Europe's proximity to North Africa makes revolution in the Arab world of obvious and enormous significance. The speed of change in Tunisia and Egypt caught Europe unprepared and slow to respond – though European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton quickly responded to violence in Libya, calling it “unacceptable.”
For the most part, however, the euphoria and ingenuity of the young, tech-savvy revolutionaries and their calls for dignity, jobs, and the end of police states initially filtered to Europe through a layer of caution and worry. The first EU ministers' meeting on the subject took place Feb. 20, and a “new partnership” with Egypt and Tunisia was promised. Prior to this, a divided EU mostly watched as Western response got shaped by the US.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is reportedly miffed that President Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak so soon, and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi defended the ousted leader a week after he fell. Mr. Berlusconi is also the closest EU leader to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.
Much of the fear in Europe involves sudden changes to a status quo the Continent has been comfortable with for years. Arab autocrats policed borders and coasts to stop migrants heading north, and won Western support by presenting themselves as bulwarks against Islamic extremism. Human rights issues were rarely raised.
"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."
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.
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."
In a recent TV debate involving France's position in the Arab uprisings, Jean-François Copé, who is head of the ruling party in France and chiefly responsible for promoting its anti-burqa law, faced off against Tariq Ramadan, a leading European scholar of Islam and grandson the Muslim Brotherhood's founder. The debate quickly turned into a small argument.
Mr. Copé: "Isn't it written in the founding charter of the Muslim Brothers: 'The Koran is our constitution, Jihad is our way, martyrdom is our hope?' "
Mr. Ramadan: "It is a slogan.… Is it not said in the French national anthem 'let impure blood be spilled in our furrows?' Did you reduce France to that? You cannot reduce an organization to a slogan."
"Those who demonstrated in Egypt are precisely those demonstrating in Iran against [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," wrote Olivier Roy of the European University of Florence in "The Post-Islamic Revolution," a recent essay that quickly made the rounds here. "They might be believers, but they separate that from their political demands: In this sense the movement is 'secular,' because it separates religion from politics."
Mr. Roy argues that while Europe is seeing Arab uprisings through the lens of Islamism, colored by 1979 Iran, pluralistic politics in Egypt will likely sap the Islamists' position, not reinforce it. "Youngsters know that Islamist regimes have become dictatorships; they are neither fascinated by Iran nor by Saudi Arabia."
Cameron in Kuwait took a different European view on the uprisings, saying that “Some would claim that Arabs or Muslims can’t do democracy, the so-called Arab exception. For me that is a prejudice that borders on racism.”
While Europe has largely been on the sidelines in the Arab uprising – or taken cues from the White House – it is beginning to act. A significant nudge came when 5,500 Tunisian immigrants arrived last week on Italy's Lampedusa Island in the Mediterranean. The figure is now 6,000.
The European Union has announced $23 million in immediate aid to Tunisia and $350 million by 2013 in addition to monies promised to Egypt by Ms. Ashton today. The EU has also said it will undertake a deeper and more serious effort to support elections, the writing of constitutions, and civil society.