The New Arab Spring: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next

(November 8th-9th, 2011, 9:00 a.m., Central Military Club, Sofia)

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The Atlantic Club of Bulgaria together with the Bulgarian Euro-Atlantic Youth Club and in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, Ministry of Defense of Bulgaria, the Berlin-based Institute of Cultural Diplomacy and NATO, organized a conference, entitled "The New Arab Spring: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next".

Mrs. Avgustina Tzvetkova, Deputy Minister of Defense, opened the conference by declaring that democratic principles and the desire for development were the main driving force of the so called Arab Spring. She stressed on the role of NATO and the international community for solving the crisis; without their actions casualties and chaos would have reached colossal scale. “Operation “United Protector”, organized and conducted by NATO in very short period, carried out successfully its mission to protect civilian population, impose arms embargo, and a no-fly zone over Libya”. Mrs. Tzvetkova paid tribute to the international community, including the UN, NATO, the African Union and the Arab League. The cooperation between NATO and these organizations proved vital for the success of the mission, according to her. “The international community is ready to help Libya on the hard way of stabilization, institution building and social and economic development of the country”.  H.E. Susan Sutton, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, declared that Eastern Europe’s experience can and should be used by the Arab countries. Mrs. Sutton reminded that the transition of the post-Communist states has been very difficult but today we witness tangible results. “We believe that the Middle East will become more democratic and transparent, that the countries from the region will begin to work for the interest of their people”, said the Deputy Ambassador. She once again expressed President Obama’s support for change and his readiness to assist these countries in the process of institution building. “What drives the world today is our desire to work together in reaching our common goal”.

The first panel was called “The Arab Spring - what happened, what it means” and it featured several speakers - H.E. Dimitar Tsanchev, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Turkish Ambassador to Bulgaria Ismail Aramaz, the prominent journalists Ivan Garelov and Ivo Indjev, the sociologist Andrey Raichev, and Ruslan Trad, founder of the Forum for Arab Culture. Ivan Garelov commenced by saying that the Arab Spring is a spontaneous event, a direct result of the accumulated discontent. He made a parallel between the protests in the Middle East and those in Western Europe and the U.S., concluding that there are many similarities. According to Mr. Garelov the youth population in the region is the main driving force of the revolts, because they want to have the same opportunities as their counterparts in the West. The journalist also noted that during the so called Arab Spring there was no burning of American or Israeli flags in the streets. The main reason for that, according to him, was President Obama’s decision not to take the leadership in operation “Unified Protector” but to give it to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The famous journalists predicted that the future elections in the region will become a major victory for the Islamist parties but he doesn’t think that this fact should scare away Western countries; on the contrary, Islamists might turn out to be good partners of the West. “Now is the time to strike vital blow against international terrorism, and we should take that opportunity - by promoting democracy in the Middle East”, concluded Ivan Garelov. H.E. Ismail Aramaz, the Ambassador of Turkey to Bulgaria, started off by saying that change in the Arab world is inevitable and it will wipe out all the remnants of the past. The Ambassador declared that the ideas of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism are out of date today and certain new principles are going to replace them - those of democracy and international cooperation. Mr. Aramaz recognized the impact of the protestors on the streets, but he paid closer attention to the more and more important role women are playing in these protests, and, hopefully, in the future governments - a very positive tendency, according to the diplomat. He rejected the allegations that Turkey is trying to win from the Arab Spring. “On the contrary, Turkey and the whole international community are trying to help these countries”. The Ambassador pointed out that democracy in the Middle East should be established by the people and for the people and not imposed by the West. “We can only offer help and assistance to countries in transition; we shouldn’t be forcing certain political decisions or ideas”, finished H.E. Ismail Aramaz. Ruslan Trad noted the changed perception of the West toward the Arab world. Whereas, before the revolts the region was mainly a tourist destination, today it is regarded as very important for the security and stability of the whole international community. Mr. Trad agreed that the transition won’t be an easy one, yet it is necessary and unavoidable. He made a parallel between the changes in Europe, which took hundreds of years, and the changes in the Middle East which will have to last only decades. Ruslan Trad commented on the situation in Libya as well. According to him religious divisions in the country are among the major problems, which exacerbate tensions. Yet, Mr. Trad said that it is our obligation to help Arab countries build their own political system, without imposing Western-style democracy.

The topic of the second panel was “NATO’s role in North Africa and Libya”. Participants were Gen. Simeon Simeonov, Chief of Defense, H.E. Catherine Barber, Chargé d'affaires in the British Embassy in Bulgaria, H.E. Issa Ashour, Libyan Ambassador to Bulgaria, Plamen Bonchev from the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Prof. Zoran Dragišić from the Belgrade University and Plamen Ivanov from the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria. Gen. Simeonov made a brief analysis of the causes for the so called Arab Spring the most important of which being poverty, corruption, violation of human rights and growing unemployment, particularly among young population. The lector presented also a detailed report on the NATO operation “Unified Protector”. According to him, the intervention was timely and indispensable, because it saved thousands of lives, threatened by Col. Gaddafi’s regime. “It is obvious that NATO will not play a decisive role in post-conflict Libya; the main responsibility for upholding and guaranteeing order and justice will fall to the international community and the new Libyan government”, concluded the General. H.E. Catherine Barber also defined the intervention as successful but she insisted that more hard work is still to come - the building of the Libyan democracy. Mrs. Barber gave more details on London’s activities and policies throughout the crisis. She pointed out that Prime Minister Cameron himself coordinated the joint actions of the coalition. H.E. Catherine Barber ended her speech by listing the most pressing issues for Libya today - organizing free elections, gathering and storing all the weapons scattered around the country and creating a working state apparatus which will secure the smooth transition to democracy. The Libyan Ambassador Issa Ashour who is representative of the National Transitional Council (NTC) expressed her gratitude to the international community for helping the Libyan people. She strongly condemned the Gaddafi regime and declared that operation “Unified Protector” saved many innocent lives. The Ambassador thanked also the Arab League for the swift and opportune position in support of the NATO intervention. Mrs. Ashour officially confirmed the thousands of victims killed by the military and mercenaries. H.E. Issa Ashour expressed Libya’s support for the protestors in Syria and Yemen and declared that her country is ready to assist them in their bid for freedom and democracy - values which the Libyan people have already materialized. The Ambassador was pleased with the fact that a large part of the international community has already recognized the NTC as the sole representative of the Libyan people which is essential for the country’s stable development. According to Plamen Bonchev, NATO has created a solid foundation for its future role in the region as a supporter of democracy and defender of human rights. He pointed that Libya will be the first Arab country to take advantage of the opportunities for cooperation with the Atlantic Alliance, but not the last - Egypt, Tunis, Yemen are also on their way to transition. Mr. Bonchev specified corruption as one of the major problems in the region but added that this issue can be successfully tackled with the support of the international community. Professor Zoran Dragišić mainly focused on the example of the Eastern European counties and the post-conflict situation in Libya. He emphasized on the necessity to find an appropriate role for the military in order to assist transition and institution-building. Mr. Plamen Ivanov repeated the most important facts about the Arab Spring and enumerated some of the problems lying before the Libyan government.

The third panel included H.E. Philippe Autié, the ambassador of France in Bulgaria, Lora Borisova from the EEAS, H.E. Katya Todorova, the Bulgarian Ambassador in Morocco, Cap. Pancho Panchev, and the journalist Georgi Milkov. Ambassador Autié, as a representative of one of the most active countries during the conflict - France, clarified Paris’s position and once more reminded us that the whole operation was performed thanks to the collaboration between separate international organizations - UN, EU, NATO and the Arab League. The Ambassador also insisted that the new political system that is to be built up in Libya will not be based on a Western model. It will, however, follow the basic principles of the international community such as human rights, freedom and equality. Ambassador Autié also turned his attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “No guarantee of security is possible without just peace in the Middle East”, concluded H.E. Philippe Autié. Ambassador Katya Todorova, as a Bulgarian representative in Morocco, gave a very precise characteristic of the country. She defined Morocco as a country on the rise. Despite its serious problems the Arab state has achieved a lot in recent years. Morocco is a main partner of both Europe and NATO and has even taken part in operation “Unified Protector”. The country serves as a kind of a border of Europe and is important to the battle with terrorism and human trafficking, which makes it one of the most important countries for the EU in the region. Ms. Todorova also made comments on the economic situation in the country - thanks to the serious funding from Europe Morocco has the opportunity to become a regional leader and a pillar of democratic values.  Ms. Lora Borisova mainly focused on the actions of the EU and the EEAS in particular by also stressing on the situation in Sirya. The European efforts are directed to the prevention of a new crisis in the region and to solving the situation. Cap. Pancho Panchev gave a detailed activity report of the frigate “Drazki” as a part of the efforts of the coalition forces. Georgi Milkov from “24 chasa” presented a bit more different approach to the situation. He shared some of his personal meetings with the Libyan dictator. The journalist directed the audience’s attention to the good relations between Bulgaria and Libya in the past and added that it is in our best interest to rebuild them with the new government. Agreements for renewal of the trade relations have been achieved in the already performed negotiations with the new Libyan government, in which Mr. Milkov has also taken part. Goergi Milkov defined the regime in Syria as “much more brutal than” the Libyan and the journalist expressed his wish for the international community to react against Damask just as adequate as it did against Tripoli.

The last panel for the first day of the conference was dedicated to the new social networks and the Arab Spring. In it, the differences in the panelists’ opinions on the role of facebook and Twitter shined. Maxim Behar expressed his strong support to social media. According to him, the access to information in the Arab states is severely limited and controlled and it is precisely the social networks that unleash it. Broader access to information leads the population out of the whale’s womb and thus causes revolutions. Nowadays we live in a public and transparent world in which it is harder and harder for political regimes to establish full control. Totally opposed was the opinion of Konstantin Valkov and Nikolay Nedelchev. Both considered the role of facebook in the events of the Arab Spring to be extremely exaggerated and that television channels, namely Al Jazeera and Dream Tv, were much more important for the revolution. As Mr. Nedelchev noted, the social networks were an accelerator but not a catalyst for the events - they helped for improving the organization but nothing more. In Libya less than 4% of the population uses facebook, in Tunisia - 17.6%, in Egypt - 6%. These numbers are small enough to present only the core of the protesters. Still, it was noted that around 55-70% of the population consists of young people and uses new technologies, so undoubtedly the internet has had some role in the events, if not the most decisive one.

The second day of the conference was also well attended despite having only two panels. The first panel turned its attention to situation with refugees to the EU after the revolutions in Africa. The panel started with a lecture from Veselin Tzankov from the Institute for Legal Studies of BAS. He showed a presentation, prepared with the help of students from UNWE. Its main focus was on Italy’s problems with the refugee masses and the island of Lampedusa in particular. The number of refugees to the island greatly surpasses the local population and the ability of the local authorities to deal with the situation. Over 48 000 people have reached the island and 3000 of them have been accommodated, considering that the island’s refugee capacity is 800 people. Italy’s attempts to deal with the problem are, on one hand, supported by the EU with financial help, but on the other hand opposed by some of the countries, which disapprove of Italy’s methods - France for example, which cancelled 2000 visas issued to refugees by Italy. The next panelist was Daniela Georgieva - chief expert of the “State Agency for refugees”. She provided more information on the legislature about refugees applied by the Republic of Bulgaria, implemented in the Constitution and international conventions, by which the state is a member. She also clarified the process on differentiating the types of migrants and the procedure on issuing a status. She concluded with the information that there is no increase in the flow of refugees from North Africa to Bulgaria, since the main motivation of foreign citizens to come to Bulgaria is mostly economical. The director of General Directorate Border Police, Zaharin Penov, confirmed with data that the migrations to the outer borders of the EU have increased, mainly to Italy and Malta. Out of the three Mediterranean routes, the Central one has the biggest increase in illegal immigrants - over 600 times in comparison to 2010. The East route, part of which is Bulgaria, has even marked a slight decrease. Therefore, the events in North Africa have not had an impact in this direction. Mr. Penov briefed the audience on the measures taken by FRONTEX, namely the operations Hermes and Poseidon. The former directed to Italy and the latter to Bulgaria and Greece. 41 083 people have been detained under the Poseidon operation. The most attempts for illegal entry in Bulgaria have been on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Next was the representative of the MFA - Kamen Velichkov, who stressed on the humanitarian operations in Libya and their success. The high efficiency of international organizations and the high level of euro-solidarity were made evident by those operations. The link between humanitarian protection, recovery and development of conflict zones achieves greater and greater importance. As a whole the Arab Spring showed us how important it is to activate efforts, in connection with conflicts, in the communication of the EU institutions. Prof. Krasteva from NBU expressed six paradoxes in her speech. Namely: the communitarization against renationalization; the question - what should be the main object of migration politics; the problem center-periphery; solidarity to hostility; foreign policy decision made by following internal policy logic; and the problem of security and human rights. The panel was concluded by Ms. Milagros Leynes, the representative for Bulgaria of the UNHCR. She criticized Europe’s policy since Europe has not done enough to secure the refugee’s safety. In the particular case with Libya - only 1% of the people who fled the country went to Europe, while around 740 000 people went to Tunisia, an evidence for the fact that European hospitality can still improve. Bulgaria was also criticized, mainly because of the long detainment of refugees in the country and the lack of sufficient bases for accommodation.

The last panel of the conference was entitled “North Africa - what’s next?” It was opened by Mr. Mark Donfried from the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. He presented three main issues: what separates the people is not gender, skin colour, religion, etc. but access; secondly, the conception that we have to decide who gets access and to what is wrong - we should rather decide how to grant access to everyone; and finally - we have to find out exactly to who we are appealing, we have to reach out to the regular man who is the base of society. All this was followed by a statement from H.E. Sheila Camerer - the ambassador of RSA to Bulgaria, who expressed RSA’s worry for the events in the region, in its quality of a temporary member of the Security Council of the UN and the strongest economy in Africa. She congratulated Tunisia for its success with the transition to democracy, for its program for a new constitution which will protect human rights. She said that all in all the things that Tunisia achieved in four months had taken the RSA four years. She also mentioned her discomfort with the situation in Egypt since the revolution there was “kidnapped” from the military and so far the transition has showed serious voids. The following commentary of Peter Frisch from the European External Action Service was among the ones that criticized Western policy. According to him the revolutions were a movement of socio-economic discontent, a battle against poverty and for human rights and employment, caused by high expectations and the unstable economic situation. Mr. Frisch somewhat blamed the West for the poverty in the region since the western policy was to support authoritarian regimes as a counter to Islam, which was viewed as an equivalent of terrorism. This belief proved to be wrong - we preferred stability and security at the price of stagnation and the growing social vulnerability and unrest can lead only to tension.

Rayko Pepelanov from the MFA marked as most important the changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. He stressed on the fact that the changes there do not mean transformations into democracies by the Western model, on the contrary - Eastern Europe had and used Western Europe and the USA during its transition while the Arab states have no democratic practices and have too many secular parties. Furthermore, the population is no longer the moving force behind the protests - it was replaced by the military and religious parties. The sociologist Andrey Raychev also joined the thesis for a different sort of democracy by starting with a Lao-Tse quote - “When you do not know where you are going, you get somewhere else”. He stated that we all “err with the diagnosis” and that the events from the Arab Spring are not a transition to a democracy so we all have the wrong approach to them. He also criticized the idea that the world is moving towards a democracy as a completely and utterly wrong and based on the successful transitions in Brazil and Spain. He also added that the transitions in Eastern Europe were not that successful and in some cases even twisted the idea of democracy. The next panelist, Prof. Antony Galabov, defined the act of 11.09.2001 as an important milestone in the relations between the Western world and the Arab states which condemned Islamists as prone to terrorism, at least in the eyes of the Western countries. Actually, at the moment, Islam is passing through a sort of a “Renaissance” period and the young people in these countries follow an Islam we do not know well, a kind of a European Islam, supported by the use of new technologies and a more democratic perception of the world. Prof. Zahari Zahariev added that the processes in the Arab revolutions should not be divided and broken into parts, on the contrary - they should be viewed as a whole because they are connected. According to him the events of the Arab Spring did not create anything new and least of all a war of civilizations - they are just the natural way of development. He also added that because of the financial side of the crisis we have ignored its other sides which can turn out to be much more dangerous since they could lead to a complete reconstruction of the public organism and new changes and instability in the international relations.

The conference ended with a commentary by Mr. Georgi Koritarov. He reminded that 2001 was the year of dialogue between civilizations as so pronounced by the UN. He also mentioned the 1972 Olympics in Munich and the Munich Massacre when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped 11 athletes from the Israeli team. He stressed on the fact that despite these events the Olympics and the world moved on and that in this context the year 2011 is a reverse symbol of 1972. At the end, Mr. Koritarov expressed his wish to live in a world in which the different nations and civilizations respect each other and live together in peace, despite their differences, without trying to change one another.

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