Discussions were led by a panel of two MEPs: Guy Verhofstadt (President of ALDE), and Isabelle Durant (Vice-President of EP).
Mahmud Gebril, of Libya, and Néguib Chebbi, of Tunisia, were invited as representatives of their respective countries. Mahmud Gebril is leader of the National Force Alliance, and was the interim prime minister of Libya during the civil war. Néguib Chebbi is the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party in Tunisia.
The debate was opened by the President of ALDE, the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt who stressed the importance of close cooperation between the European Union and Northern Africa by calling for the creation of "a democratic mare nostrum in the Mediterranean".
Isabel Durant set forth some important topics, asking the panellists to address the question of disillusion and the divisive elections that forced difficult choices upon still undecided nations. In Tunisia especially, the winning of the elections led to a loss of credibility, as not all expectations were met nor questions answered. It lacked the tools necessary for full democratic legitimacy, without institutions to regulate, control, supervise, and oversee.
Gebril, first to speak, stressed the role the European Parliament and its governments played in the Libyan revolution.
The focus then shifted to the growing importance that North Africa's growth will play in Southern Europe's future. "Today Africa is a continent of 1.033 billion. In 2050 that will grow by 2 billion. Europe will age and shrink while Africa expands, and North Africans will travel to Europe looking for jobs," Gebril said.
His discussion of the new, "fearless" generation was orientated towards their connection as a virtual party, with no recognised leadership and no clear political programme.
Following the collapse of the regimes, there were contending ideologies, each trying to exploit the newly created vacuum. Gebril argued though that the younger generation will reject these competing ideologies in favour of democracy and human rights.
Though there has been a lot of disappointment with the speed of change, Gebril expressed thanks that Libya was fortunate enough, as a stateless society, to have a lower crime rate than Egypt and Tunisia. Its tribal frameworks, he contended, held the fabric of society together.
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Néguib Chebbi opened by arguing that revolution had come from the non-integration of youth within the economic system, calling this symptomatic of the failure to integrate all regions. Supporting Gebril's assertion, Chebbi says that the crash was not structured by any political party but by active young people with no other choice, working spontaneously and using new technology.
Echoing Gebril, Chebbi noted the major vacuum which was left, arguing that he wanted to safeguard the freedom of the state and carry out reforms. While support for their Islamist opponents during the October 2011 elections ran high, through an alliance, functions were shared between the two parties.
Problems of disappointment loomed large in Chebbi's introductory speech. As the most hopeful for economic growth, many young people felt cheated, turning to emigration, the Somali Jihad, and suicide.
The crux of his argument came in his proposal that Tunisia's disappointing growth was largely due to its un-competitiveness; growing unemployment, budget deficits, and shrinking tourism.
Yet, Chebbi said, thanks to its police and army Tunisia remains safe, despite religious extremism and weapons imported from Libya. Though a constitution was drafted by an elected constitutional assembly, there is a tremendous need for new elections, a new election system of proportional voting, and an overall safer environment.
Chebbi remained hopeful that Tunisia could be the first democratic Arab state, though the possibility of deviating into chaos is still present.
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The first set of questions focused on the future involvement of the EU and whether democracy was a viable way of ensuring economic growth for those countries involved in the Arab Spring, as well as an emotional plea of hope for Syria.
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Mahmud Gebril's reply focused on the filter of North Africa, which could allow Africans passage north and could prove useful for the European economy. While now they're kicked out because they don't have the right skills, Europe should remember that North Africa could be a very dangerous territory.
Gebril made several points in response to the question of hope for Syria; that there must be more support for refugees, most of whom are children; more unity within the Syrian opposition to strengthen their legitimacy; more support for the army to avoid contending groups; and power left to people with no blood on their hands.
Democracy, Gebril pointed out, is a means not an end. The freedom to express oneself is equal to the freedom to be human. Economic demands without democracy – being granted a job but not allowed to speak – are useless without the freedom of democracy.
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In the next set of questions, attendees commented on Europe's new paradigm of 'more for more'; more money, market mobility, and migration, as well as questioning whether the credibility of the EU is suffering.
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Chebbi spoke strongly in favour of globalisation:
"The market economy is the best choice for the flow of resources, and they must be open to the global economy for success. This is the only relevant framework to produce and share wealth."
Tunisia was the first country to sign with Spinelli and to conduct an overhaul of its legislative and financial frameworks. Trade was diversified and the economy became more competitive. Chebbi stressed that Tunisia needs these foreign markets, but also needs partnerships and a transferring of technology.
For Chebbi, the free market and democracy go hand in hand; democracy bringing equal footing and thus equal access to credit. The revolution, he says, was caused by unequal development. Their government must secure public investment, and focus in particular upon development funds for the tourism services. Young people, he says, must help themselves, playing an active part in developing the wealth of the country.
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Gebril, uncomfortable with the vision of globalisation put forth by Chebbi, expressed concern that Tunisia may not benefit in the long run, though the transfer of technology is of utmost importance.
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The last comments from the audience brought up the disparity between positive action and hyperbolic political rhetoric, the dominance and possible outcomes of fundamental Islamism, and worries that there seemed to be tolerance for the older generation while being hard on the future generation.
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The final statements from Gebril and Chebbi focused on the need to create a platform for national dialogue within the new political structure.
Chebbi responded to the question of fundamentalism by stating, first of all, that fundamentalists are still citizens with an equal right to participate in civil society, and, secondly, that extremism results from exclusion and a lack of dialogue. Gebril added that the prevalence of fundamentalism was a simple fact for many of the countries involved, though it is vastly less popular in Libya.
Chebbi admitted that though the youth were a major force in the Tunisian revolution, the absence of a structured civil society meant that older political elites filled the void at the first general election. Europe must encourage reforms and new elections in these countries, and a real partnership must be forged, beyond the framework of states but with multinational companies.
The debate ended on the need to support and strengthen democratic structures, and the importance of patience and vigilance both for this transition and in the years to come.
The effects of the pro-democracy rebellions and protests in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria – and many others – are still in the process of changing the political systems. The political systems in many of these newly democratic countries are still in flux, and there will be new questions and conclusions to be drawn in the coming years and months.
Zoë Jellicoe is a communications and marketing trainee at the European Parliament, with a background in journalism and literature. She has lived in the UK, the US, Italy, Switzerland, and Ireland.