Europe's Scared of the Spring

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Photograph by Gianni Cipriano

Most unwelcome Fleeing unrest in Tunisia, refugees wait in hope of a frry from the Italian island of Lampedusa to the mainland

On a backstreet in Marseilles, a French flag adorns the facade of the row of houses where revolutionaries in 1792 first began singing "La Marseillaise," their hymn against tyranny. The Memorial of the Marseillaise opened this spring as a monument to freedom — the rights of people to speak out, determine their own fates and elect their own governments — and embraces France's official version of itself as a guardian of liberté, égalité and fraternité. The gift shop sells T-shirts with revolutionary slogans: AUX ARMES, CITOYENS! ("To arms, citizens!") and VIVRE LIBRE OU MOURIR ("Live free or die").

In the heavily Arab neighborhood outside, the focus is on more recent revolutions just across the Mediterranean. On a recent Sunday, the television in a grocery store was tuned to al-Jazeera for the latest headlines from Egypt. Tattered posters announced a Free Palestine rally. The long-distance-call shop was full of families phoning back to the Maghreb for news. For Abdel Kader, 20, manning the till, the new memorial to "La Marseillaise" seemed irrelevant — or worse. "I don't sing 'The Marseillaise,'" says Kader. "Listen to the words: 'Let impure blood water our furrows'? Those words hurt."

Europe's self-image as the realm of freedom was long burnished by the corresponding perception of the Arab world, just across the sea, as a land of tyranny and stagnation. But the Arab Spring changed everything. Suddenly the old formula has collapsed. Europe no longer holds a Mediterranean monopoly on freedom and democracy. The Egyptian protesters who toppled a despot in 18 days look rather more efficient than, say, those in Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's corruption trials grind on. The Arab quest for freedom comes at a moment when many European Arabs feel their own freedoms are under fire, whether because of the French ban on burqas or the rising tide of antimigrant rhetoric from political leaders.

Arabs accuse Europe, as much as the U.S., of long having enabled Middle Eastern despots. "We must show humility about the past," admits Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy. "Too many of us fell prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region." Years of cozy relations with dictators like Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak undermined Europe's claims to be championing democracy, and European businesses loved doing crony deals with political insiders.

If Europe's reputation among Arabs was tainted by its ties to the old regimes, it can hardly have been redeemed by Europe's reaction to the Arab Spring. By rights, this should have been Europe's shining moment. Rebuilding societies after wars, communism or despots: that's what Europe does well. But whereas the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 showed Europe's ability to expand and embrace its neighbors, the Arab Spring made it look old, scared and confused. Like the Obama Administration, many European governments were slow to recognize the strength of the protest movements and waited too long to support them. "At first, both the U.S. and the E.U. reacted very hesitantly and completely inadequately," says Rime Allaf, an expert in Arab affairs at the British think tank Chatham House. "Now they've come to their senses and are thinking of their own interests. I wonder whether being quiet wasn't better." When tyrants like Ben Ali and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi cracked down on the protests, sending many fleeing across the Mediterranean in search of refuge, many Europeans showed little sympathy.

Ventimiglia, on the Italian Riviera, is Grace Kelly country, with palms and fountains, where old ladies promenade past artisan-chocolate shops. But during April, the town found itself hosting hundreds of young Tunisian men who'd fled by boat for Europe. After landing on the island of Lampedusa, they had traveled up Italy to Ventimiglia, hoping to cross into bordering France to find work or relatives there. For weeks, France refused to allow them in. At night, if they weren't lucky enough to get one of the beds in the emergency Red Cross shelter, the men slept on the streets and washed in the train station. By day, they'd huddle in cafés, hoping to hear that France would agree to take them. "When I was little, I thought Europe was magnificent," says Saif, 27, a Tunisian who fled his home in Kebili. "But this is not the Europe I imagined."

France and Italy bickered for weeks over who should house some 26,000 migrants — shaking the foundations of the Schengen agreement, which allows citizens free movement through the region — before France opened its doors. The European Commission is likely to allow countries to install border controls in "exceptional circumstances." The new mood is easily explained. "Because of the financial crisis, the massive enlargement [from Eastern Europe] and globalization, it's a moment when many European public spaces are rabidly inward-looking," says Kerem Öktem, a fellow at the European Studies Centre at St. Antony's College, Oxford. But such excuses don't impress Arabs, who point out that Egypt and Tunisia — much poorer than France or Italy and beset with huge problems of their own — took in more than 100,000 refugees fleeing Libya's war.

The Revolution at Home
Yet the Arab spring revealed not only a divide between the two sides of the Mediterranean but also the links across it. The most obvious bridges are the millions of Arab Europeans, many of them facing the same frustrations as their cousins across the sea: uncertain job and housing prospects. If the Arab revolts challenged the system of wasta, or connections, in the Middle East, some Arab Europeans complain of a European version based not on family or tribe but ethnicity. "I'm getting a degree in science and sport, but when I go look for work experience, they see the name Abdel Kader, and I don't get an interview," says the call-shop cashier in Marseilles. "They want someone blond with blue eyes." According to the OECD, in 2009 foreign-born workers in France were 1.7 times as likely to be unemployed as the general population, and 2.4 times as likely in Austria, Belgium and Norway. In 2005, the youth in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco watched on satellite TV as their cousins in France embarked on their own revolution: that autumn, young minorities in the banlieues — suburban housing estates — rioted against their exclusion from French society. "Youth here have exactly the same problems with the questions of democracy as in the Maghreb," says Mahmoud Rezzouali, the youth-affairs coordinator at the Muslim Center of Marseilles, a community center with a mosque and a religious school. "They don't feel free here."

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