EMMA BONINO, European deputy : Israel should, under certain conditions, offer Europe a political role in the Middle East.

Marc Daugherty
Proche Orient

By Marc Daugherty contact@proche-orient.info

Emma Bonino, member of the European Parliament, former European Commissioner and an openly declared friend of Israel, went to live and work in Cairo following the September 11th attacks. She was one of the first European officials in Brussels to criticize the Taliban regime. Today she is extremely concerned about the crackdown on liberal Egyptian intellectuals and the deterioration of human rights there. In her interview with Marc Daugherty, she offers an analysis of the rise of fundamentalism in Égypt, and how democratic regimes could govern Arab countries. She speaks about Shiites and of what the future looks like in Iraq, and asks Israel to offer more of a diplomatic role in the Middle East to Europeans.

Marc Daugherty Why did you decide to live in Egypt ?

Emma Bonino After I lost in the Italian legislative elections and then after the attacks of September 11th, I felt the need to become involved in other things. I was tired of political parties. So I asked myself : " what to do ? A diploma at Harvard ? "
I went to Egypt as a tourist. I had never heard of Nawal Sadawi, an Egyptian women's rights activist. She wrote to me during her trial. In the end, she was released. I got involved with other human rights activists being tried in Egypt. I got so involved that after making numerous round trips, I decided to live there.

M. Daugherty The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a documented fact in Egypt. Why do you think the Mubarak government is unpopular there, and why have the fundamentalists been so successful ?

E. Bonino When you live in the Arab world, you can see that contrary to appearances, the problem is not Muslim fundamentalism. What's more, it's a fact that all the Islamic regimes have failed miserably. The problem is that when a government takes repressive measures against the voices of democracy by closing non-governmental and humanitarian organizations, and keeps moderate voices from speaking, this brings on the success of the extremists.

M. Daugherty As a female European politician, your life in Cairo must be complicated.

E. Bonino It took me six months to realize that I was under surveillance. One day, I met with a group of homosexuals, the next day opponents of excision, and the next a group of fundamentalists. The following day, a car from the foreign affairs ministry picked me up and took me to an official dinner. My bawab (porter) must be going crazy. In Egypt, building superintendents also serve as informers for the police.

M. Daugherty Why has economic policy failed to lift the burden of poverty from most Egyptians and prevent support for the Muslim Brotherhood ?

E. Bonino I live in Zamalek, a neighborhood in Cairo. My landlord loves me. I am the only person paying 500 dollars a month in rent. The others pay 10 dollars. Everywhere else in the world, real estate has commercial value. But in Egypt, a building is simply a pile of bricks. Due to the huge bureaucracy, you need 70 different authorizations to obtain a building permit. Ordinary Egyptians who cannot pay for that build without permits. Most buildings are thus illegal and not registered. Therefore, they are not worth anything, as you cannot sell something that officially does not exist.
It's the same thing if you want to open a small or medium-sized business. But the government will do nothing to change that.

M. Daugherty Why do you think that the fall of Baghdad is similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ?

E. Bonino Although nobody will say it openly except a couple of courageous dissidents, I am seeing that the fall of Baghdad is beginning to have the same effects on the region that the fall of the Berlin Wall had on eastern Europe. It's true that it would have been better if this new climate of reform had been brought about by the country's inhabitants and not by a war from the outside. But you'd have to be blind and deaf not to notice that the fall of Saddam Hussein has had the effect of an earthquake on several corrupt, authoritarian regimes in this part of the world. They have not been converted to democracy, but are simply afraid that after Baghdad, their turn is next.
Take Egypt, for example. Mubarak announced that January 7 would be a holiday for the Copts. After that, the Egyptians announced they were recognizing Copt cultural and civil associations. The Copts had been asking for that for the past 20 years. A unending request had been made for a woman to be able to hold a seat in the Egyptian parliament. Human rights organizations are finally able to participate in court proceedings. Emergency laws have been partially cancelled. There has been open discussion at the presidential level about presidential elections. Nothing concerning the presidency is open for discussion in Egypt.
In Oman, a constitutional referendum is scheduled to be held on the question of women working in government and in the police.
In Jordan, new elections are to be held, and in Saudi Arabia, politicians are calling for political reform. In Iran, deputies are making repeated calls to reopen dialogue with the United States.

M. Daugherty Isn't it dangerous to call for democracy in the Middle East ?

Without freedom, human rights and democracy, you cannot even begin to work for lasting economic growth.
E. Bonino I must say that eastern countries and Europe have been sharing the same ideas since the 1970s. For decades, the idea had been that without lasting growth, you can have no democracy or human rights in the Third World. The role of the West was limited to charitable economic aid. This "life support" policy led Europe and the west to back the worst dictators. When I was a European commissioner in Brussels, it was the same thing for human rights. Aid and development programs only pretended to profess an interest in democracy. We added Article 2 on human rights to our accords with other countries, with Israel, for example, but that was a recent development. Without freedom, human rights and democracy, you cannot even begin to work for lasting economic growth.

M. Daugherty The King of Jordan, though he is close to the West, continues to rule over a society that violates the rights of women, often forcing them to marry against their will. How can real democracy be imposed ?

E. Bonino Fifty years ago, Italian women were often married against their will, and people have forgotten this. If you wait for democracy to function on an individual level before it is encouraged by governments, you might wait 5000 years and nothing will happen. But if you push for everyone to be able to read and write, people will be able to write pamphlets, for example, and everyone would have a job….And it's true that it is difficult to protect the rights of women with no women as elected officials.

M. Daugherty Is is right to try to impose democracy on Iraq ?

The mistakes made in eastern Europe should not be repeated.

E. Bonino In Europe, we refused to help democratic dissidents during the Cold War because we were afraid it would disrupt world peace. People such as Vaclav Havel and the Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia were asking for help, and we did nothing because we were afraid of hurting our good relations with the USSR and Brejnev. We should not repeat the same mistakes we made in eastern Europe.

M. Daugherty But was the choice made by certain Europeans not to use force to give democracy a chance in Iraq a good one ?

If you ask me to choose between Tony Blair and Saddam, frankly I prefer Tony Blair.
E. Bonino Sometimes, like in Mussolini's Italy or Hitler's Germany, or the Afghanistan of the Taliban, you should be ready to use force as a last resort, simply because the people cannot free themselves without outside help. This is why we are calling for a temporary United Nations administration in Iraq.
Ethnic tension is too prevalent there. The United Nations has been criticized in the past, but it is capable of establishing the basic structures of a country. Look at its success in Kosovo after the intervention by NATO. This does not mean that I support everything being done by Mr. Bush. But if you ask me to choose between Tony Blair and Saddam, frankly I prefer Tony Blair.

M. Daugherty When you speak to groups of pacifists on the Iraqi question, what solution do they propose for the Middle East in general and specifically for Iraq ?

E. Bonino They don't really have an answer. For them, it is an ideological question. Their problem is the Americans. I feel the bitterness that certain Europeans have for Americans. But I ask people if they really want peace, if they believe that the Iraqi people were living in peace. They have no answer. What kind of peace are we talking about ? Take what we have done in Kosovo, for example. I do not believe that people there or in Serbia were living in peace. So, it is not clear what the pacifist movements are talking about when they talk about peace. And I would never use the term " peace " for the living conditions of Afghans under the Taliban.
In the West, we have gotten into the habit of treating the Arab world like a petrol pump. As long as we have our petrol, we call that " peace ".

M. Daugherty How do you explain the current views in Europe on democracy in the Middle East ?

E. Bonino When I was Commissioner for Human Rights in Brussels, I heard Europeans saying that democracy was not for the Arab world because people were " too poor to vote " there. I also heard that "democracy is a luxury for rich countries ".
Every time I brought up the subject of democracy in the Third World, I was rebuffed. The heart of that way of thinking is that Europeans must not impose their values on others. Of course, we can impose our economy and our products, but not our values. Arabs were not seen as likely candidates for democracy for cultural reasons. Africans did not deserve it because they were too poor and ignorant. Asians didn't need it because they had Confuscius, and in the Balkans, they were too busy killing each other. These views have been openly expressed recently within European Union institutions.
The European reasoning on whatever problem is that "it is because of poverty and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if the United States was more reasonable, we would not have to deal with these problems. In a way, the Americans deserved September 11 because they are too powerful and too arrogant, etc." I absolutely do not share any of these beliefs.
That reassures the Europeans who say amongst themselves that if "the United States and Israel would change, everything would be fine and we would not have to change in Europe."

M. Daugherty Do you fear the emergence of a Shiite Islamic state in Iraq ?

E. Bonino It depends. There are Iranians Shiites and Iraqi Shiites. And there are the Kurds. I think it is important not to let the Iranians influence the Iraqis. The elections should not be organized too early on. I think one of the first things to do is to write up a constitution and true electoral laws.
I also think, and on this point I disagree with our American friends, that the United Nations should play a more significant role in Iraq. It is a mistake to compare the United States today in Iraq with what happened in Japan during the US occupation in 1945. The United Nations has shown itself to be competent in setting up interim administrations. I don't believe the Americans can do everything by themselves. They have set up a provisional government, but have failed to establish adequate security. Look what happened in Afghanistan : Hamid Karzai is nothing more than the mayor of Kabul. He can't even leave the country without facing a coup d'etat.
It is time for Europe to stop thinking that democracy in the Middle East is an open door for Islamic fundamentalists to take power. This is false, and all the peoples of the Middle East are able to see that every attempt to establish an Islamic theocracy has failed : in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan and even in Saudi Arabia. In Europe, we have made the terrible mistake, such as for Algeria, of thinking that the 1990s would follow their natural course.

M. Daugherty What do you think of the Road Map after the Aqaba Summit ?

The Europeans expect a great deal from Israel, but what they expect from Arafat is much less clear.

E. Bonino I see several problems with this Road Map. First of all, the terms for security control are not clear : who is in control ? Arafat or Abou Mazen ? I doubt that the Hamas Hamas and the other extremists will attempt to maintain a long-term ceasefire. As a member of the administrative council of the " International Crisis Group " (ICG), I believe we should engage a peace process in which all questions are negociated at the same time. I am worried about a situation where Israelis and Palestinians enter into interim accords that will not work. That will leave both parties frustrated and will give the extremists substantial veto power.
The Europeans expect a great deal from Israel but what they expect from Arafat is much less clear.

M. Daugherty How do you explain the tension between Israel and the European Union over the past two years ?

E. Bonino We have always told our Israeli friends that the policy of deliberately keeping the Europeans at a distance as mediators is not a great idea. Israel's most important business partner is Europe, not the United States. From a European point of view, Israeli policy appears to be "we do business with you, but for politics, we deal only with the United States". Israel should offer Europe a political role in the Middle East. As far as I am concerned, I would not grant Europe a role as mediator unless Europe opens the door for Israel to be truly integrated in the international community. This could be done with our proposal to grant Israel membership in the European union.

translated by Brett Kline

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