Making sense of Europe's response to the Arab Spring

Making sense of Europe's response to the Arab Spring
The New Arab speaks to analyst Lorenzo Trombetta about the impact of the Arab Spring uprisings on Mediterranean geopolitics.
7 min read
03 February, 2021
A series of pro-democracy uprisings swept the Middle East in 2011. [Getty]
Editor's note: This article is part of our special series on the Arab Spring 10th anniversary. The rest of the series can be accessed on this regularly updated portal.

Roman by birth but Beiruti by adoption, Lorenzo Trombetta is one of the go-to analysts for Mediterranean geopolitics

A senior correspondent for the Italian news agency ANSA in Lebanon, and a prominent Italian expert of modern Syrian politics, Trombetta also works as an analyst and advisor for international NGOs and the United Nations. 

Ten years on from the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East in 2011, The New Arab asks Trombetta about Europe's reaction to those seismic events and the role it has played in the region over the past decade.

The New Arab: When protests first started did you envision what they would lead to? 

Lorenzo Trombetta: I was sceptical at first. As an early researcher of the region's politics, I had been disheartened by the way in which the first and second intifada in Palestine had been highjacked by leaders and party politics.

I was disillusioned by Arab popular movements and their potential to realise disruptive change. I was wrong: as many other analysts at the time, I lacked awareness of the deeply rooted socio-economic dissatisfaction that was boiling at a local level across the whole region. 

Where were you on 25 January 2011? 

Read more: A decade on, Tunisia's revolutionary demand
for economic justice remains unmet

I was in Cairo, reporting on the protests as a foreign correspondent for Italian news agency ANSA. I was there throughout the 18 days of protests leading to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. I remember the relentless unfolding of events, the contagious euphoria of those days.

It was impossible to foresee the implications those early protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt would have across time and space, extending throughout the region, to Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria. Also, the magnitude of change was phenomenal - those were days of utter hope and disbelief.

What was Europe's reaction to the uprisings of 2011?

It depends what you mean by 'Europe'. European member states, for example, reacted differently according to their own specific economic, commercial and political interests in the region. Despite the many statements of support from European leaders praising the protesters, most EU member states responded with short-sighted policies, ranging across the spectrum, from tepid concern to interventionist stances. Overall however, I'd say they failed to understand the magnitude of what was going on.  

If by Europe you mean the EU, as in the political institutions that make up the political union in Brussels, the reaction was somewhat similar but for different reasons. Considering how the EU Parliament and Commission work, with extended veto powers to each single state and decisions needing to be made in unanimity, it is nearly impossible to formulate a coherent foreign policy agenda. 

As such, national interests often prevail, derailing the effectiveness of timely interventions. For example, when the EU parliament voted to impose sanctions on the Syrian government in May 2011, these were delayed for six months to give Italian and Greek companies the time to trade with Damascus according to previously stipulated agreements. 

Most EU member states responded with short-sighted policies, ranging across the spectrum from tepid concern to interventionist stances. They failed to understand the magnitude of what was going on

Was there a different response from non-institutional European actors, such as civil society and intellectuals? 

It was incoherent and often uninformed. In the case of protests in Egypt and Tunisia it was easy to agree with the square's slogans, extensively reported in Europe during the media-frenzy of the first months. When the protests started in Syria instead, European civil society split and later radicalised on two main positions: those who believed Syria was being victimised by an imperialist conspiracy and those who believed in the genuine stance of the Syrian popular movements against an authoritarian regime. This fracture was particularly felt inside Europe's left circles and remains so today. 

So, was Europe's reaction to the uprisings and its consequences a result of short-sighted mistakes and polarised opinions?

No that would be a very reductive way of putting it. At the EU level for example, Brussels-based institutions and their partners did opt for a strategy of 'soft power' that has become a sustained effort throughout the decade, mostly built through the financial and structural support of local-impact development projects. Since the political turbulence of 2011, EU funding has been supporting thousands of small to medium scale projects and civil society initiatives all across the region. 

A soft power strategy motivated by what kind of interests?

Read more: Ten years on, did Egypt's January 25
revolution fail?

From the EU's self-serving standpoint, supporting a low-key democratisation process in the southern and eastern Mediterranean is beneficial for Europe too. The final goal is political: to help stabilise these regions both politically and economically means having more reliable neighbours, governed by political classes that are able to resolve economic depression and mitigate future political conflict. 

And try to resolve Europe's immigration problem?

I don't agree with framing immigration as a 'problem'. Migration is a social phenomenon. To tackle it as a 'problem' is a political decision, and one that in my opinion should be challenged. The movement of people, skills, cultures can and should be viewed as a resource and opportunity for Europe to renew itself.  

Considering today's situation, I might be talking science-fiction. But Europe needs to push towards a change of perspective on immigration if it wants to turn into an opportunity, where public opinion favours the spending of public money in better integration policies because it knows that this will pay back. A change in this direction could lead to looking at the whole Mediterranean region with new eyes and new opportunities.

You mean providing the basis for a more communal Mediterranean politics?

The Mediterranean has rarely been perceived as a single regional entity and we are far from that happening today. If anything, today the Mediterranean as a geopolitical region is deeply fractured. In the north, the EU considers the Mediterranean as a border-zone and locates its hegemonic identity in the continent.

The southern shores of mostly Arab-majority countries despite the presence of important non-Arab minorities, are dominated by governments in deep cultural and political crisis. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the destabilisation of Lebanon and Syria has brought Russia and Iran to contend military influence with other regional actors, namely Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Turkey. The Mediterranean today is a puzzled region.   

The Mediterranean as a geopolitical region is deeply fractured. In the north, the EU considers the Mediterranean as a border-zone and locates its hegemonic identity in the continent

Are these fractures too wide to bridge?

Indeed, at least for the present and immediate future. Europe is not equipped with the tools necessary to propose a more cohesive Mediterranean. Its politics towards its neighbours on the other shores of the sea during the last decade has been one of containing the threat coming from beyond its borders, migration and terrorism, mostly pursued through the soft power approach mentioned before. Europe lacks the political motivation to walk that bridge and change perspective.  

Global powers such as China, Russia and the US are financially and military more equipped to influence the region, alongside more localised players such as Israel and the UAE, who are leading the regions' foretold shift away from fossil fuels.

What is the legacy of the 2011 uprisings for the Mediterranean?

The transformation ignited by the 2011 uprisings was unique in its magnitude over time and space, upturning a huge geographical space over a very short period of time. Only time will tell if there will be anything similar in the future. For now, it is really hard to imagine. 

The disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic hasn't helped in this sense. If anything, it has furthered the narrative of 'each to their own'. For a real Mediterranean politics to emerge, other groundbreaking political shifts are needed, such as bringing about a shared interest across the shores and institutions where this could be turned into practice. Starting from a commercial unified space across the Mediterranean.

David Suber is an Italian journalist and doctoral researcher focusing on migration, terrorism and crime. He is the co-director of the creative journalism platform Brush&Bow

Follow him on Twitter: @davidlsuber