Yahia H. Zoubir, Professor of International Relations & International Management, Director of Research in Geopolitics, Kedge Business School >>Read more…
Gong Zheng 龚正, Assistant Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations >>Read more…
In the evening of 25th of October, ThinkINChina (TIC) was lucky enough to host both Professor Yahia H. Zoubir and Researcher Gong Zheng for an educational, provocative and, above all, exciting whirlwind of a night. And a whirlwind it was.
Prof Zoubir started off by challenging the event’s title: why do Europeans consider ‘stability’ the holiest of holy goods, whilst ‘instability’ seems synonymous with ‘global threats’ and hell itself?
Were the repressive, violent but stable pre-Arab Spring administrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya good regimes? Or were they merely considered ‘good’ because European states judged their stable character, useful in creating a buffer zone to what lies south of North Africa?
To answer these questions, Zoubir took us on an analytical journey back to the eve of the Arab Spring: Why did the Arab Spring occur at the time it did? What were the underlying economic, political and social circumstances ignited those events?
In the 1990s stability had been the key word: French president Jacques Chirac had not cared about Tunisia being a police state. Democracy was not important. Feeding your population would do well enough, he said. Northern Mediterranean states actively sponsored those of North Africa. Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi paid General Gaddafi around five billion dollars in reparations: not so Libya would develop its economy, but so they would keep the situation as calm as it was (and provide Italian companies with oil and business in return).
Conjointly, in the 1990s the European states aspired to create a zone of prosperity in North Africa. The strong belief in neoliberal economic served as the motives for the International Monetary Fund to press the countries in the region to privatize and liberalize their economies – with a steady rise of unemployment as a consequence.
Leading up to the Arab Spring, there existed a one to ten wealth gap between the South and North of the Mediterranean.
In Northern African states an economic bourgeoisie came into being, receiving bribes and dividends from multinational companies to do more and more business in these countries. North Africa has a population of which 70% are younger than 35 years old, income inequality is still rising, and unemployment widespread.
The Arab Spring occurred; the regimes first interpreted it as mere ‘food riots’, but, in fact, the causes and grievances were more deep-seated.
Not democracy, but a life of dignity became the recurrent theme in all of these protests.
Some regimes decided to make ‘cosmetic constitutional changes’ whilst remaining in power (Morocco), others gave up power (Tunisia) or droppedtheir plans to have their sons or brother succeed them in office ( Algeria, Egypt), while another was forcibly removed through foreign intervention (Libya).
Today, the power vacuum following the intervention in Libya has resulted in civil war and chaos, whose main beneficiaries are the so called Islamic State and other armed groups, thus potentially destabilizing the entire region. Tunisia is reverting to its old system of government as it invests most of its funds in security and building a wall at its border with Libya. Algeria has the same preoccupation at the Libyan border. The Egyptian elected regime was toppled by a military coup. Economic development is lagging in most of North Africa. These states are returning to de facto authoritarian forms of government of the pre-2011 period: repressive, but (not yet) stable.
The chaos in Libya provided these regimes with a new argument to silence their contestation movements even more convincingly: ‘so you want democracy? You truly want to be like Libya eh?’
The lack of development prospects within the current system, and not having any prospect of toppling the said system, leaves disenfranchised youngsters with two choices: either cross the Mediterranean to find an illusory ‘European El Dorado’, or join jihadi groups. Yet, these regimes have again taken up the task the European Union wants them to fulfill: serve as a gate to the states north of the Mediterranean. Hence, providing stability. Zoubir concludes: ‘You cannot fight terrorism if you keep the citizens marginalized because terrorism prospers in areas where young people do not have the prospect of a better tomorrow’. Therefore, supporting regimes that merely provide stability is not a winning strategy.
Following Zoubir’s talk, Gong Zheng explored China’s (‘the only big power that has not made big mistakes in the MENA region yet’) concerns and strategies in North Africa and the Middle East. Gong agreed with Zoubir that a lack of focus on the livelihood of local people is one of the main reasons for the prevailing unrest in these states. He referred to the fact that Zhou Enlai had already visited 10 African countries during the Cold War, intending to and succeeding in shaping a close bond between Chinese and African citizens whilst at the same time furthering economic cooperation. Nevertheless China’s political influence has decreased in the region ever since the end of the Cold War.
Gong argues that China does not have a well-designed comprehensive strategy or a sufficient amount of friends in the region whilst it does have interests there, for instance its own domestic stability.
Radicals of China’s Xinjiang province (home of the predominantly Islamic Uyghur community) and foreign Jihadis, well trained and battle hardened in the Middle East and North Africa, have attempted to sneak back into China and commit terrorist attacks in the Eastern part of the country. Moreover, in Northern Mali one Chinese peacekeeper was killed, as were two in South Sudan. This development presents the Chinese government with the following dilemma: on the one hand Beijing does not want to be drawn into the quagmire that is the Middle East and North Africa, yet China does intend to fulfill its international responsibility of providing peacekeepers. Increasingly Chinese citizens do question why Chinese troops are in Mali in the first place, as the instability there is mostly a consequence of (Western) foreign intervention. Shortly, China has more than enough reasons to enlarge its influence in the region.
Although China does have close relations with both the Egyptian and the Algerian administration and has supported the Tunisian peaceful transition of power, the Chinese and the Northern African populations remain largely foreign to each other. Herein lies a clue on what China’s strategy is missing, argues Gong:
China should develop a plan, which aims to comprehend the mind and aspirations of young Northern African people.
As the lack of friendly relations hinders China achieving its foreign policy goals in Middle East and North Africa, such a new public diplomacy push targeted specifically at young people might open up many new opportunities for China in North Africa and the Middle East in the near future.
By Joris Jaap Teer