The issue of the EU’s and European States’ policies on refugees and irregular migration is a contentious one. But the way I see it, these policies are merely tools that reflect European strategies in the MENA region. Unfortunately, I, along with European experts, see this strategy as a deficient one that compromises the EU’s values and long-term security, as well as the well-being and aspirations of the peoples of Europe and the MENA region. This strategy is shaped by misconceptions and only offer shortsighted, unsustainable solutions founded on narrow political calculations and a very faulty analysis of the political dynamics in the MENA region.
Over the past few years, two priorities have come to dominate European policy-makers’ approach to the MENA region, namely containing the threat of terrorism and stopping the flow of refugees and irregular migration. Based on the need to address those two priorities, the EU and its Member States devised short-sighted strategies that made it impossible to address the root causes of terrorism and the refugee crisis. This strategy has rested on turning a blind eye to what brutal MENA dictators do to their peoples, in exchange for their cooperation on security and border control; and more generally, on incorporating a form of migratory conditionality into bilateral cooperation. European partnerships with autocratic Arab rulers are often justified by the misconceived notion that the Arab Spring caused the chaos which allowed for the expansion of terrorism in the Middle East and the increase in numbers of refugees and irregular migrants to Europe. But this could not be further from the truth.
From Morocco to Iraq, via Syria
The Arab Spring is better understood as an attempt to push for reform in order to stop chaos from sweeping across the region. For decades, Arab authoritarian rulers have violently resisted their peoples’ peaceful attempts to push for meaningful reform. To that effect, some rulers gassed their peoples with chemical weapons.1 Others resorted to ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial killings, large-scale enforced disappearances, systematic torture, arbitrary detentions, and politicized mass trials.2 Such brutality and paranoid policies didn’t even leave room for social or economic reform. Those authoritarian rulers’ main goal was to eliminate any viable alternative to their rule at any price, including compromising the integrity of their state’s institutions. This eliminates prospects for sustainable stability, in particular through social, economic, and political development in these countries.
The manipulation of the refugee crisis is a prime example of how far MENA rulers would go to secure their power. In Syria, 90% of civilian deaths (which amount to over 190,000 persons), were committed by President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces and his allies. One of the reasons3 behind Assad’s indiscriminate airstrikes against Syrian civilians was to strengthen his political position, where he flooded Europe with refugees to throw it off its balance. It’s noteworthy that well over 50% of Syria’s population are refugees or internally displaced, not to mention that by 2015, the flow of refugees from Syria to Europe reached 1 million.
Since the launch of the Syrian revolution, Assad framed his brutal massacres of his people as a war against extremism, asserting that he is the only counterweight to terrorism, but the reality on the ground has been different. In 2011, Assad started releasing jihadis from jail, who later reactivated Syrian jihadi networks that enabled the rise of ISIS. King Abdullah of Jordan stated in 2015, along with several western experts, that while ISIS was being formed “the Syrian regime was hitting everybody else, but not ISIS. . . . They needed to get somebody out there that’s worse.” In other words, Assad needed the spectacular brutality of ISIS, to make his war crimes look less vicious by comparison, and perhaps acceptable. Not only did the Assad regime focus its war efforts on everyone other than ISIS, it also acted as the largest funding source for ISIS by purchasing gas and oil from the organization. Few have paid attention to these facts, and the majority of states that previously called for Assad’s ouster now seem to believe he should stay in power to stop terrorism. I wouldn’t be surprised if they nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Sisi’s Policy Encourages Terrorism
The shining success of Assad’s manipulative strategy has been impressively mimicked in Egypt. When President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi is questioned about his brutal policies, he often responds that Egypt is a nation of over 90 million in a turbulent region, implying that instability in Egypt will lead to waves of refugees much larger than those coming from little Syria. Sisi’s primary foreign policy card now is to threaten collapse. This veiled threat plays on how the EU and European States make short-sighted political calculations and formulate the order of their priorities. I say shortsighted because the EU and states like France, for fear of terrorism and the arrival of more refugees and migrants, remain silent about the Egyptian government’s oppressive policies—though they actually fuel terrorism and increase the numbers of refugees and migrants. The Egyptian government’s policies have led to an expansion of terrorism inside the country. Since Sisi assumed power, the number of terrorist groups operating in Egypt increased and the geographic scope of attacks widened, first inside North Sinai and later spilled into major Egyptian cities like Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta. The attacks initially almost exclusively targeted security personnel, but now they target civilians, including Coptic Christians. The latest incident claimed the lives of over 300 Sufi Muslim worshipers. Such deadly and brutal attacks were virtually unheard-of before Sisi’s ascension to power. Additionally, there are numerous testimonies on radicalization in Egyptian prisons.
A former Egyptian political prisoner stated in a French magazine that ISIS prisoners are more easily released than those from the peaceful Islamists. He attributed this to the fact that the government’s real priority is not fighting terrorism, but eliminating any organized peaceful political group with the capacity to mobilize citizens, from the leftists and liberals to peaceful Islamists. This failure in countering terrorism, mostly met with European silence, has also created the circumstances permitting the forced displacement of Sinai’s Christians, as they fled their homes after being attacked by ISIS. Meanwhile, senior European officials make alarming statements that sound like “Sisi saved Europe and the Middle East.”
“Here we don’t live”
The chaos in the MENA region is not a result of the Arab Spring, but of brutal autocrats’ resistance to what the Arab Spring stood for. Between 2011 and 2016 around 630,000 irregular migrants and refugees reached Italy through the Mediterranean. But around 80% of those made their journey between 2014 and 2016, the years of counter-revolution and crackdown on the forces of the Arab Spring.
In 2016, a shipwreck off the coast of Egypt left well over 200 people dead; the survivors said they were already planning on trying again to reach Italy. A man was quoted on the scene saying, “We are not living here, so why not risk death?” This leads to the question: how can the EU help them stay and “live” in their homeland instead of dying at sea? The often-repeated shortsighted answer is to increase developmental and security assistance to fight poverty and improve border control. But through the same relatively ineffective means as before—and without addressing the root causes of poverty, insecurity, injustice and marginalization which create refugees and migrants in search of hope, safety and a livelihood.
This gives corrupt rulers a short-term lease of life without changing their most destructive policies. Arab autocrats like Abdelfattah Al-Sisi strangle essential protagonists for implementation of the EU and Member States’ developmental strategies, namely local and international developmental NGOsthat is expected to force the closure of 70% of developmental and charity associations in Egypt, meaning 30,000 associations.]. Additionally, without good governance (lack of governmental accountability, and implementation of poor economic, social, and fiscal policies), fighting corruption4, and ending systematic oppression of youth, marginalized communities (Bedouins in Sinai and Nubians in upper Egypt are systematically marginalized and excluded from development projects, government positions, and representation), and syndicates, the EU’s efforts are futile. Foreign aid continues to be absorbed without affecting the overall trends of oppression, poor governance, and underdevelopment. According to Robert Springborg, a leading academic expert on Egypt, the current trajectory will likely lead to the collapse of the state.5
I recall the many individual cases that I know of Egyptians living abroad who flocked back to Egypt during and immediately after the January 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. They did so, believing that their country was at a moment of transition and could become a developed and modernized state. They did so because the Arab Spring gave them hope and a stake in the future of their country, for the first time in their lives. But today, most of those I mentioned have left Egypt again, along with many others who had never thought of leaving their countries in the first place, including myself. They have been driven out by frustration, despair, and an absolute absence of hope that their country could move forward an inch, on the current trajectory. This is not just about democracy or human rights, it’s also about backwardness, incompetence, dysfunctionality, institutionally-rooted political and financial corruption, and the inherent distaste for progress and modernization among the ruling elite. After all, those notions threaten this elite’s primary purpose: holding on to power.
Additionally, the consistent suppression of the people’s legitimate aspirations for a better life sends a clear message: the peoples are not citizens, but guests in their own countries. The EU and European States like France need to revisit their broader strategy towards the region. They need to stand up for their values and inspire hope. This hope will ultimately translate into the development of reliable partners and peoples who would rather build their countries, than flee their homes or drown at sea in pursuit of a safe and dignified existence.
1For example, Saddam Hussein carried out the infamous Halabja chemical attack against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. Bashar Al-Assad has also used chemical weapons against civilians over the course of the Syrian civil war.
2HafezAl-Assad’s massacre of civilians during his indiscriminate shelling of Hama, Saddam Hussein’s genocide against Iraqi Kurds using chemical weapons, and his atrocities against Shia civilians during the 1991 uprising where about 100,000 Shias were killed, as well as the harrowing brutality of King Hassan II during Morocco’s “years of lead” offer a glimpse of what Arab autocrats would do to remain unchallenged in power.
5Egypt, Polity Press, 2018.