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

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It's not just the freedom to find decent work. Under France's rigorous commitment to laïcité, or secularism, it can be a lack of freedom of thought and speech. Rezzouali tells of girls removing their headscarves at the school gates to comply with French laws on religious symbols, only to be berated because their skirts were too long. A Muslim schoolboy he knows wrote an admiring essay on a Victor Hugo poem. His teacher then criticized him for bringing Islam into the classroom: the poem praised the Prophet Muhammad.

Other European Arabs have felt their freedoms curtailed by the long reach of Arab dictators' security services. In France, the Tunisian community was cowed into silence because of Ben Ali's vast network of informants, says Ahmed Nadjar, of the online journal med'in Marseille. "They kept quiet, maybe even sold information, because they were afraid for their families back in Tunisia," he says. Libyans were intimidated by Gaddafi's 1980s "stray dogs" campaign, in which his agents killed Europe-based Libyan dissidents.

That began to change when antiregime protests broke out across North Africa. Abdulla Boulsien was raised in London and Malta by a Libyan father who'd cut off all ties to the country. "We'd never socialize with other Libyans, and we'd never talk about anything political, even amongst friends," he says. "Since this spring, I've met more Libyans than we ever knew existed here. Everyone's talking freely. Now, it's 'Put down the Mad Dog.'" Many European Arabs returned to their ancestral homelands to participate in the protests — or stayed to rebuild after them. Four Ministers in Tunisia's current Cabinet left banking jobs in London and Paris to build the new government. New groups of French Tunisians have sprung up to promote business and political interests, including the right of expats to have parliamentary representation in Tunisia. "The real break is generational," says Vincent Geisser, a French expert in Maghreb politics. "Where the older generation is interested in France, the younger ones are now looking to Tunisia."

That's in part because unlike their parents, they've grown up in a world of mobile phones, budget flights and the Internet. "Because of Twitter and Facebook, the relationships between the diaspora and their countries of origin are permanent," says Michel Peraldi, an anthropologist specializing in the Mediterranean political economy. Tarek Klabi, 31, a Marseilles helicopter engineer of Tunisian parentage, says he got his revolutionary news from sites like A Tunisian Girl, a blog by a young woman covering Tunisia's uprising. He founded a group, Collectif Solidarité Maghreb, to rally French-based support of the revolutionaries, organizing demonstrations of thousands in Marseilles via text and Facebook. After Ben Ali's fall, he founded a small NGO online to build schools in Tunisia. But it's not just the news from the Maghreb that excites him: the Arab Spring, he says, has raised expectations among young French Arabs that change is possible north of the Mediterranean. "After we've seen what's happened in Tunisia, there was a thought of, What can we do in France?" Klabi says. A Tahrir Square-style uprising isn't what he has in mind, he says, "but perhaps we can make a change." With French Tunisians feeling "less hidden, more proud," he says, he's hoping they will speak out on issues they feel target them, like the burqa ban and President Nicolas Sarkozy's recent national debate on secularism.

A New Beginning
Can Europe atone for past mistakes in the Arab world? NATO's campaign against Libya's Gaddafi may help: rebels in Benghazi have offered prayer and praise for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Sarkozy. So too could Europe's contribution to rebuilding the revolution-ravaged economies of Egypt and Tunisia, topped up in late May by the G-8's pledge of $20 billion in aid. But the Arabs have seen big checks and big talk about support of democracy before, since the E.U. launched the Euro-Mediterranean partnership in 1995. This time around, the trick will lie in ensuring that money doesn't merely line the pockets of a new political elite.

It will take a fundamental change in the way Europe views the Arab world for a new cross-Mediterranean relationship to blossom. "Until now, Europe has looked at the Arab region as a useful geography, a useful geology and a good market," says Bichara Khader, director of the University of Louvain's Center for Study and Research of the Modern Arab World. "Now we have to change the lens. Rather than paternalism, they have to be partners in looking to a common prosperity."

For the past decade, fears of terrorism, smuggling and migration have blotted out attempts to reconcile the differences between the shores of the Mediterranean. Europe is aging, while an estimated 65% of the Middle Eastern and North African populations are under 30. Europe increasingly needs workers; Arabs need jobs but often can't get visas. "We must change how we look at the 175 million young Arabs at our doorstep," says Khader. "They're not a peril for our culture and our security but could be an asset for our development. The future of Europe lies to the South."

The best place to start may be right at home. "There is a newly diverse European population, linked to the Maghreb by its origins," says Mustapha Dali, an imam of the mosque in Cannes, who with his beard, vest and granny glasses looks like the Sorbonne-educated '68er he is. "This diversity is [Europe's] good luck."

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