Conflict & Justice

Europe slow to react

The World's Gerry Hadden reports on the slow and muddled European reaction to the anti-government protests in Egypt. Like the US, many European countries are caught between supporting an old ally and calling for an orderly democratic transition in Egypt.

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The political crises in Egypt and in Tunisia have complicated US foreign policy in the region. That's also true for Europe, which lies just across the Mediterranean from all the recent unrest.

The European Union has been trying to formulate a united position amid concern that protests and instability could spread to other Arab states. But European unity has been complicated by competing interests and a lack of leadership.

In January, when the popular uprising in Tunisia was just beginning, France lost no time in getting some political egg on its face.

Foreign Minister Michele Alliot Marie, speaking before the French parliament, offered Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali support ? for his security forces.

Alliot-Marie was attacked by the media and human rights groups for not supporting a peaceful transition of power. Days later, she amended France's position. ?My chief concern was that no one get[s] hurt,? Alliot-Marie said.
France stumbles with reaction

France's knee-jerk reaction illustrates how much is at stake for Tunisia's former colonizer.

France's economic interests in Tunisia are enormous. Its multinational companies dominate the economy, from telecommunications to construction, generating hundreds of billions of dollars in annual revenue.

Even after France's stumble, no European voice emerged to outline the European Union's collective position.

Then the popular protests spread to Egypt.

Over this past weekend, as the Obama Administration struggled to reposition the US as a proponent of orderly transition in Egypt, European Union leaders were silent. Only yesterday did they attempt to present a unified voice.

And it wasn't easy.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero urged prudence in dealing with the crisis.

Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini issued a warning: ?I would say an Islamic wave dominating the Middle East is something that concerns me a lot.? Frattini added that Europe must protect the Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt and is a major trade route for Europe.
Concern about extremists

The US shares Europe's concern over extremists. That helps explain why both sides of the Atlantic have long supported Arab regimes more valued for their stability than for their human rights records.

Over the weekend, leaders in the Britain, France and Germany praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his key role as a moderator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Europe, like the US, sees that ongoing role as crucial for Middle East peace.

So yesterday, when the EU's new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, finally spoke on the issue, she avoided criticizing Mubarak, even as she called on Egypt to respect the rights of its citizens.

?I deeply regret loss of life and the high number of injuries,? Ashton said. ?It's essential that everyone and this includes police forces, show restraint so that further violence can be avoided. We urge the authorities to release immediately all peaceful demonstrators who are in detention.?

Beyond such declarations, Europe is scrambling through diplomatic back channels to push for orderly democratic transitions. But it walks a fine line between trying to influence the outcome of the Arab Unrest and appearing to try to dictate it.

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