Unrest in the Arab World Europe's Double Dealing with Despots

The European Union sanctioned Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday. But when it comes to autocrats in the Arab world, Brussels still hasn't taken off its kid gloves. The EU needs to be more decisive in its support of human rights. 

European foreign ministers -- here Franco Frattini of Italy and Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg -- have not proven particularly proactive when it comes to the Arab uprising.

European foreign ministers -- here Franco Frattini of Italy and Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg -- have not proven particularly proactive when it comes to the Arab uprising.

By in Brussels

The European Union is capable of bearing down. When it wants to. On Tuesday, EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels agreed to harsh sanctions against Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko as a result of his crackdown against the opposition in December. The president and 150 members of his regime are no longer allowed to travel to the EU.

But when it comes to the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Europe's leading diplomats are not nearly as decisive. Despite a week of protests which have seen hundreds of thousands of Egyptians take to the streets to demand an end to Mubarak's reign, EU foreign ministers have stopped short of adopting a firm position. Instead, the group preferred to call for "free and fair elections."

"We don't yet know how the situation in Egypt will develop," one foreign minister described the dilemma. "We can't support one side over the other."

Worried about Chaos

The EU's indecision when it comes to Egypt was on full display at the meeting. Of those present it was German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle who had most recently visited the Middle East: He arrived directly from Israel where he had met with his counterpart Avigdor Lieberman. Westerwelle told his EU colleagues that the Israeli government is worried about the chaos in Egypt, which borders Israel to the south. Egypt, after all, was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel and Hosni Mubarak's regime is the Jewish state's most important ally in the region. According to Westerwelle, Israel is especially afraid that radical Islamists could seize power in Cairo.

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Photo Gallery: Showdown in Cairo
Jean Asselborn, foreign minister of Luxembourg, was quick to counter. Israel's concerns, he said, are certainly understandable, but the country could have contributed to the stabilization of the Middle East had it not been so stubborn when it came to negotiating peace with the Palestinians.

The EU, Asselborn said, has paid too little attention to the needs of its people and noted that Brussels had supported Mubarak's moderate regime in order to hinder radicals. The Luxembourg minister did not, however, go so far as to call this a mistake. "We wanted stability because stability means peace," he said.

These days, however, one can no longer speak of stability in the region. The Tunisians have driven out their long-time dictator and the Egyptians are defying Mubarak -- and the EU finds itself confronted with the question of whether it does too little for human rights across the globe.

Indeed, despite the EU's commitment to human rights at home, things look murkier in practice abroad. Egypt, where elections are neither free nor fair and where regime opponents are regularly tortured, receives €150 million a year from Brussels. The European Commission wants to send refugees back to Libya, even though their security under dictator Moammar Gadhafi is far from guaranteed.

Robust Dialogue

And last week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso received Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov, primarily a function of the EU's interest in Uzbek natural gas reserves. There wasn't even a press conference following the meeting -- Karimov threatened to cancel his visit should he be required to speak to reporters. After the meeting, Barroso said he prefers "robust direct dialogue" and said he had demanded in private that Karimov uphold human rights.

Foreign policy officials from the Commission point out that so-called "human rights dialogues" have been ongoing with many of these countries for years. They argue that extensive exchanges with Europe had, in part, helped whet Tunisians' appetite for freedom and democracy. "If we were to make human rights the be-all and end-all we would have to sever our diplomatic relationships with half the world," said one high-ranking EU diplomat.

That may well be true when it comes to the period prior to the recent uprisings. But since then, the EU has shown no signs of shedding its hesitancy. It took Brussels until last Monday to freeze the assets of Ben Ali and his wife -- more than two weeks after Ben Ali turned his back on Tunisia. Hardly a sign of newfound decisiveness.


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