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Qaddafi’s death and Tunisian elections interest European leaders

October 26, 2011

“The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy (left), the National Transitional Council prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, David Cameron, the NTC president Mustafa Abdul Jalil and the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy arrive at the Tripoli medical centre” on September 15, 2011. Photo source:

It is has been an eventful autumn weekend for the Arab Spring. Muammar Gaddafi received a pre-dawn burial on Tuesday. On Sunday, Tunisia’s first open and democratic elections were held since the country’s independence in 1956. In Egypt, Mubarak has been on trial and was briefly rumored dead by the Russian news site RT. After the upheaval of the spring, these three neighbors could be breaking new ground for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East.

While NATO exercises are to cease on October 31st, Europe’s interest in North Africa will only intensify. There is a potential increase in refugees from Libya into Europe, raising the ghost of an incident earlier this year, when an influx of Tunisians set off a quarrel between France and Italy. The political future of these North African states may be even more important in shaping the West’s relationship to the Arab world.

Much has been said about the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in a new, less secular Egypt. World Politics Review’s Chris Luenen argues that Europe must engage the Muslim Brotherhood in order to prevent more radical groups within Egyptian politics from further destabilizing the political scene. He argues for a proactive European approach that involves Turkish leaders and sit-down talks in capitals throughout the Arab world. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has threatened to boycott November parliamentary elections and some wonder whether Egypt will meet its self-imposed Jun 2012 deadline for transfer to civilian rule.

In Libya, the political transition from dictatorship to the unknown has just been made but European leaders are already inquiring as to what lies ahead for Libya. Not only did NATO intervene in Libya, but French and British leaders took much of the initiative in Operation Unified Protector. Urged by world leaders, interim Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil has decided to launch an investigation into the murky minutes surrounding Gaddafi’s death. In August, Presseurop put forth the idea that Europe and the United States were betting on the National Transitional Council’s ability to reconcile the divergent tribes and factions within Libya. Already, quarrels have sprung up between the cities of Benghazi and Misrata regarding war strategy. Any faltering step could reflect poorly on Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, who made a highly-publicized trip to Libya in September after the fall of Tripoli.

While Tunisian elections were touted across the world as the sign of change for the Arab World, one has to ask what kind of change will be brought. Results showed the victory of moderate Islamists of the Nahda party over the traditional secular elite, represented by the PDP, Ettakatol and CPR parties. Tunisia, despite its lack of free elections, had been known as a regional model of secular governance. The Nahda party seeks to imitate the secular Turkish model, where Islam and the state are separated, but religion is not completely removed from the public sphere. France, as Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, is interested in the results of Tunisia’s elections, if only for the fact that ten Tunisian parliamentary seats are elected by Tunisians living in France. France’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs issued a statement applauding Tunisia’s historic elections. On the other hand, the UK Guardian’s Sihem Bensedrine believes that Europeans are not as disinterested as claimed. He writes that, “European, and especially French, decision-makers who refuse to accept the risks which come with any free and fair election,” have intervened by offering organizational and material support to turn the Tunisian elections in their favor.

While many world leaders have praised the completion of the Tunisian elections, some fear that change towards Islamism may mean less civil rights for those not in power. This concern is not just for Tunisia, but for the whole of North Africa and the Middle East. New governments in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, could be the models upon which other new democracies style their ascent out of autocracy.

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