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International Policy Conference: ”Engaging with an Arab World in Crisis”

Opening remarks/speaking points by Mr. Martin Lidegaard, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Copenhagen 1 December 2014

  • Pleasure to open this international conference titled “Engaging with the Arab World in crisis”. Thanks to the Danish Institute for International Studies for excellent collaboration.
  • The title of the conference captures important points. Yes, the situation in the MENA region is to a large degree marked by crisis. But as the title also indicates, it is highly important to stay engaged. My main point today is this: our engagement must remain broad and comprehensive. And there is a need for both a top-down and a bottom-up approach.

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  • By the end of 2010 we witnessed the start of the so-called “Arab Spring” or “Arab Uprising”. Throughout the Middle people took to the streets demanding dignity, socio-economic justice and freedom.  
  • The Uprising gave rise to optimism among the public, politicians and scholars. However, gradually optimism was replaced by concern.
  • Almost four years later, the region is marked by conflict and instability. The recent advance of the barbaric terror organisation ISIL across the territory of Syria and Iraq impacts immensely on the situation in the entire MENA region. It generates more instability, refugee flows and has fed into the security driven agenda in several countries.
  • The situation in the region is highly complex. No formula can cover all trends and developments. Great variation from country to country. Having said that, a key word could be polarization.
  • We see intensified sectarian polarization both within states and between states. In Syria, the population is deeply divided along sectarian and Sunni moderate-extremist lines. The conflict has also strengthened regional polarization and competition between Shia and Sunni states.
  • The battle-field has moved into an already fragile Iraq. Exclusion of the Sunni-minority from the political processes and the advance of ISIL have enhanced instability.
  • Deep ideological polarization has also characterized some of the main developments in the past years. In Egypt, space for dissenting voices has been shrinking.
  • Polarization is also played out along tribal and ethnic lines. This is very much the case in both Libya and Yemen. Finally, polarization of course has territorial aspects across the region, as illustrated by the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
  • The aggravated regional tensions have hit the economies hard. Growth is slowing and unemployment rising. Especially the massive unemployment of the growing youth population is a serious challenge.
  • Changing demographics could have been an opportunity to boost the economies in the region. Instead, it has generated a cycle of frustration, social unrest, and political instability. Add a little agitation and throw in some arms and you have potential disaster in your hands.

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  • Despite many worrying developments still some positive dynamics in the region. The Arab Uprising mobilized young people and created hope for justice, freedom and dignity. New civil society organizations mushroomed and have called for more pluralist societies where the gap between Governments and their populations is narrowing. They will hopefully be drivers of change in the years to come.
  • Tunisia, in particular, should serve as inspiration for the region. Tunisians have prepared a new democratic constitution helped by a strong civil society and the will to political compromise. Just concluded a successful parliamentary election and in the process of electing a new president. Major challenges awaits Tunisia but key steps taken towards a more free and just society.

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  • A democratic and prosperous MENA region will improve stability on Europe’s southern borders. It will contribute to preventing cross-border crime and refugee flows into Europe, increase business opportunities, and strengthen the mutually beneficial exchange of culture and ideas. History shows, that democracies are less vulnerable to conflict and more likely to develop sustainable economies.
  • Therefore, also in our own interest to promote stability and support demands for dignity, freedom and improvements in living standards. This will serve as a bulwark against radicalisation and violent extremism, which constitutes a security risk beyond the borders of the MENA countries. The fight against ISIL illustrates it is not just a distant fight. Foreign Fighters poses serious and acute security concern in Denmark and other countries. Denmark cannot turn its back on these challenges. 
  • Overall Denmark’s engagement is defined by how we best support our security, welfare and values. This may sound self-centered. But it is not.
  • Solidarity with the Arab populations is an important value. So is the promotion of values such as human rights, democracy, equality and compliance with the international legal order. For a small country these objectives are usually promoted effectively through multilateral action within organizations such as the UN, the EU and NATO - as well as with alliances flowing from these organizations.
  • The complex challenges in the MENA region require an innovative and multifaceted approach. All tools must be brought into play in a comprehensive and concerted manner. This includes “classic” diplomacy, military action, humanitarian aid, stabilisation efforts, commercial diplomacy and development assistance.
  • At times we use “hard power” in response to a given crisis. This approach is top-down addressing immediate threats to peace and stability [Example: Danish engagement in fight against ISIL]. 
  • At the same time we need to sow and nurture the seeds of reforms. Here the approach is more bottom-up. For example supporting civil society, creating jobs, promoting gender equality or democratic processes at local level. Aware that democratic reforms take time. Elections are necessary elements of democracy but not enough. Much more is needed to development a civil society based on a true democratic culture
  • ISIL and violent extremism cannot be defeated by top-down military means alone. The international community must combine all instruments from “hard power” to the soft diplomatic and humanitarian responses. Indeed, a broad comprehensive approach is needed to defeat ISIL.
  • Since 2003 the Danish Arab Partnership Program [DAPP] has been a cornerstone in Denmark’s bilateral engagement with the Arab World. DAPP supports political reform and democratization, while also enhancing dialogue between civil society in Denmark and the Arab World. Regional developments since 2011 have required a flexible approach in order to be relevant and effective in our support for potential drivers of change.
  • There are many examples of successful DAPP activities. I recommend that you take a look at the new DAPP results report that we publish later this week. Here you can read about activities such as dialogue between religions groups, support to the first democratic constitution in Tunisia, improved social dialogue in Morocco and support to victims of torture.

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  • As hinted in my introduction: Despite the bleak outlook almost four years after the Arab Uprising, Denmark’s only option is to remain engaged. We have to show solidarity with the courageous people in the region fighting for justice, dignity and freedom. This is also how we best protect our security, welfare and values.
  • Our engagement must remain broad and comprehensive using appropriate multilateral and bilateral tools to meet the challenges. Need for both top-down and bottom-up approach.
  • To build sustainable democracies take time. We know that from our own history. In Europe it took centuries to realize the wish for freedom, dignity and jobs with many bloody wars, repression and lives lost. Therefore important to remember the long term perspective. Both when we try to make sense of the situation in the region and when we look at our engagements. Thank you for your attention.