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The European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Last year I was invited to learn about the European Union through a program called EU Visitors Program. It was a chance to learn about Egypt’s foreign policies from the other side of the fence. The overriding inclination was support of the Mubarak regime. It was there that I heard the word stability with maddening frequency.

It was either Mubarak, i.e. stability, or democracy and overall chaos. The stability they referred to was regional of course. Mubarak served strategic regional purposes. “He talks to Hamas for us,” said one official in 2010. And when quizzed about their support of an autocratic regime, the officials gave the “soft power” answer. As opposed to aggressive pushing for democracy in 2005, they watered down the pressure in favor of the regional stability.

A year and a half later, the regional map is changing from within and the EU is forced to amend its neighborhood policies. Not only due to the political upheaval in the Arab World but also due to more critical voices from within that might be gaining momentum due to the very same regime change in the south.

But the changes in the policies go beyond a comparison to the past. The factors are complex and overlap —sometimes leaving me with the impression that neither party of these policies knows what they want. The vague situation on the ground could be an excuse for the confusion. European and Egyptian officials know very well neither can live isolation even at a time of transition. For now, Egypt’s relation with the EU is still a work in progress.

Read my two-part analysis of the changing and evolving relation that ran in Daily News Egypt:

The struggle to find more than words in Europe’s reviewed neighborhood policy: Part 1

BRUSSELS/CAIRO: Surprised with the so called “Arab Spring,” Europe has been scrambling to justify relations with former dictators while it revises policies to better suit the democratization aspirations of North Africa.

Long before mass protests swept Tunisia last December and shortly after in Egypt, activists and opposition members had considered the West — the United States and Europe — a hindrance when it came to aspirations for political change. Democracy programs and even intermittent pressure on the former regimes to implement reforms were often seen as strategic moves rather than genuine efforts.

That the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt remained in power this long and their presidents often received with open arms by American and European leaders were proof for many politicians in North Africa that the West wasn’t the slightest bit interested in real reform, regardless of how many times Western diplomats stressed otherwise.

“In the past too many have traded democracy for stability,” José Manuel Durão Barroso, president of the European Commission, said candidly in his address to Cairo in July. “But recent events have only proven that lasting stability can only be achieved through democratic and accountable governments.”

Others were blunter in their assessment of regional relations pre-2011.

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The struggle to see beyond words in Europe’s reviewed neighborhood policy: Part 2

The ambiguity is to some extent mutual and extends beyond immediate demands.

On the one hand, Europe is hesitant about the type of regimes and political and economic systems that will emerge in Egypt and Tunisia. On the other hand, with transition government in control, both North African countries are yet to determine what they want on the long run, whether domestically or in foreign policies.

The extra funds promised by the EU won’t be injected into programs except after October. The timing has to do more with logistics within the Union, but it also gives the EU the opportunity to wait and see the results of promised elections; i.e. a clearer indication of the future. On Oct. 24, Tunisians will vote a constituent assembly to draft a constitution and in November Egyptians will choose a parliament.

According to Hamdy, meetings with his European counterparts over the past few months were dominated by three questions: whether Egypt would allow monitoring of the elections; the policy towards funding civil society groups and the controversial, Mubarak-era NGO law; and political Islam.

Egypt’s announcement that it won’t accept election monitors didn’t have a noticeable impact on its foreign relations. The recent government decision to investigate the sources of funding of civil society groups, seen by many activists as a guised witch-hunt against critics, is yet to have an impact.

Before Egypt’s ruling military council announced it won’t accept international monitors, observers weren’t expecting much reaction in case of a rejection.

The absence of an impasse — over two issues with vital impact on the five benchmarks Fule noted — could be interpreted as more respect to the sovereignty of the new governments or a return to the days when Europe would turn a blind eye to issues it labeled as violations or setbacks.

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