Politics and Contemporary History in Germany – Panorama

“Nowhere do I see a theocracy in the making” – Volker Perthes on the Arab Revolution

Coverausschnitt des Buches „Der Aufstand“; © Pantheon VerlagCover of the book “Der Aufstand”; © Pantheon VerlagIn his book “Der Aufstand. Die arabische Revolution und ihre Folgen” (The Uprising. The Arab Revolution and Its Consequences), Volker Perthes has analyzed the situation in the Arab world. Goethe.de spoke with him about the present and the future of the Arab bloc – and about the role that the West can play in the process of democratization.

Professor Perthes, what time frame do you give the “Arab Spring”?

I don’t use the term “spring”, because it expresses too much impatience and hardly invites us to think about a long-term strategic commitment. From other transformation processes, for instance, in Eastern Europe, we know that the surmounting of authoritarian structures can’t be done in three months. It can take many years, even decades.

What in the end will the Arab states become: theocracies, democracies, tribal republics?

In future there won’t be only one state model in the Arab world. There isn’t only one now: we have republics, monarchies, more or less authoritarian or liberal regimes. In the next ten years these differences will become even greater than in the past. We’re going to have very authoritarian systems as well as liberal and, as I hope, “sustainable” and self-sustaining democracies – most likely in Tunisia. Nowhere do I see a theocracy in the making.

But the Islamic parties have collected a hefty part of the vote…

Islam is part of the political spectrum in these countries. This has to do with a basically conservative-religious sentiment, but also with the fact that these movements were for a long time in the opposition. Many people are willing to give the religious parties a lead in terms of morality. After all, “Down with corruption” was an important battle cry of the uprising. Few will vote for the Islamic parties for religious reasons. People expect these parties to solve the problems – political, economic, moral.

Won’t the situation become critical when, at the latest, religious ideas come into conflict with the basis of democracy – women’s rights, freedom of speech?

That’s right. Behind this is the question whether Islamic political groups will adhere to the rules of – the still to be established – democracies. Will they accept that they can be voted in and then voted out? Will they adjust their policies so as to offer pragmatic cooperation with the government in order to be re-elected? Or will they let fundamentalist groups push them against the wall?

“Money, market, mobility”

Volker Perthes; © SWPHow can the European Union support the transformation process?

The EU has an entire “toolbox” ready to support political transformation processes, including election observers and election workers, constitutional lawyers, property specialists and business law experts. In all this the EU is well positioned. Then there are the well-known three M’s: “money, market and mobility”. People are always happy to take money – but the EU knows that it can’t compete with the rich Gulf States.

And the other M’s?

Market and market access. Much here has already been done, but we still have seasonal quotas on the introduction of certain agricultural products. A complete opening would be a political signal. In my opinion, the third M is the most important: mobility.

What does that mean concretely?

For example, we proposed to the German government a work experience program for young engineers and doctors. They’ve had an acceptable university education in their home countries, but no opportunity for work experience. They could get this here in Germany. Or a training agreement: European firms offer traineeships in which young professionals can acquire sufficient work experience to start businesses in their own country and create jobs.

Solar energy from the desert – do you see an opportunity in a new energy partnership between North Africa and Europe?

Europe needs clean energy, and North Africa electricity and a power supply system. The Europeans have investment capital, technical knowledge and know how. Here it’s important to bear in mind that this isn’t only a matter of producing inexpensive energy for Europe; on the contrary, above all it’s about building a secure power supply in North Africa itself.

In this general connection, how do you view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

It’s a stumbling block in the path of further developments – and it always has been. Think, for example, of the plans to build a freeway along the Mediterranean from Morocco to Turkey, a project that would bring states together and create a lot of jobs. Think of the water projects that haven’t got off the ground because there’s no trust.

People want participation and social justice

Can the United States promote developments?

Without the US, nothing is going to induce the conflicting parties to make the concessions they must make to bring about a solution, which everyone knows will have to be that of two states.

You conclude your book with a view of two models of the world and argue that not the Chinese model has triumphed in the Arab revolutions, but rather the democratic model of the West.

In the Arab revolts we have seen that where people take to the streets, they make demands according to the democratic model, not the Chinese, Saudi or Iranian one. They want participation and social justice. The political leaders of these states, who have now stepped down, repeatedly told us: Don’t push us in the direction of democratic opening; we have a good model in China – economic development and authoritarian rule. The people, on the other hand, have now made clear that they don’t want that. Yes, they want economic growth, but not at the price of participation and social justice.

Professor Dr. Volker Perthes has been Director of the Science and Politics Foundation (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik / SWP) since 2005; the Foundation advises the Bundestag and the German government on foreign policy questions. He is also adjunct professor at the Humboldt University and honorary professor at the Free University, both in Berlin. In late 2011 the Pantheon Verlag published his book Der Aufstand. Die arabische Revolution und ihre Folgen (ISBN 978-3-570-55174-5).
Volker Thomas
conducted the interview. He is a freelance journalist based in Berlin and runs an agency for texts and design (www.thomas-ppr.de).

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
February 2012

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