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LIBYA: Poland Steps Into Arab Spring

Analysis by Robert Stefanicki

BENGHAZI, Libya, Nov 7 2011 (IPS) - As the first foreign official to visit Libya after the liberation announcement made by National Transitional Council, Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski tried to kill two birds with one stone.

First, to enable Polish energy and construction companies’ comeback to post-Gaddafi Libya. This “unique opportunity” at the “best possible moment” excited members of his entourage.

The other part of what may appear a new Warsaw Pact being offered to the Arab nations was more idealistic. Poland wants to share its knowhow on transfer to democracy.

“We want you to learn from our successes as well as our mistakes,” Sikorski declared after the meeting with NTC head Mustafa Abdel Jalil. The offer was backed with signs of goodwill. From his previous visit to Libya in June, Sikorski brought back to Warsaw three families of African refugees. This time he offered the services of Polish doctors and nurses to Libyans wounded in war, both in Poland and in Libya. The Polish medical mission in Misrata has now begun its work.

The old Solidarity trademark seems still helpful. “We remember your brave Solidarity movement and we want to learn from Poland how to depart safely from dictatorship,” Abdalla M. Fellah, head of the Libyan Business Council, told IPS.

Fellah echoed his countryman Mohamed S. Salem Abunnaja, a former political prisoner, who together with other observers form Tunisia and Egypt visited Poland at the beginning of October to watch the parliamentary election. “We want to study the Polish experience and apply similar legal mechanisms in our countries,” said Abunnaja at a press conference in Warsaw.

He cited examples. “Election Commission integrity. Also the vetting law (obliging the candidates for key state posts to be scrutinised for collaboration with communist security services) is worth copying, in order to prevent former thugs and informers come to power again,” Abunnaja said. Libya, he said, is at a crucial historical moment, like Poland in 1989.

Since mid-year, when Poland took over EU presidency, Polish initiatives aimed at North Africa have gathered speed. Many Polish VIPs now take the flights to Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli. And the representatives of the Arab revolutionaries are being invited to Warsaw.

At one conference in Poland an Egyptian veteran of the anti-Mubarak opposition wearing a Solidarity badge hugged Jerzy Buzek, head of the European Parliament. “I learned from you how to print leaflets,” he said.

A visit by former Solidarity lead Lech Walesa to Tunis in May was more than a photo opportunity for local politicians to shake hands with the famous Nobel Peace Prize laureate. People had many questions for Walesa, and he had some useful suggestions.

Like one that instead of mass arrests of former security officers, it is more reasonable to include those without blood on their hands in the new order. Or, that presidential election should precede a parliamentary ballot, because an elected head of state is more likely to bring stability and unity when there is a fragmented parliament.

Walesa, who used to be an electrician at Gdansk Shipyard, initiated a peaceful transition from communism in 1980 with the establishment of the Solidarity union. Nine years and a martial law later, Solidarity brought freedom: a round table, followed by the first semi-free elections in the Eastern bloc on Jun. 4, 1989. And then all other pieces of the Soviet domino began to crumble. Five months later the Berlin Wall fell.

Senate chairman Bogdan Borusewicz, who was one of the top leaders of Solidarity, visited Cairo in July. “Entering Tahrir Square was like deja vu to me,” Borusewicz told IPS. “The same discussions, the same tension as in Poland 30 years ago.”

“At the time our movement had to face critiques not just in Moscow, but in the West too. Some asked, ‘What do those Poles want? They know nothing about democracy’,” Borusewicz recalled. “Now we can hear the same sort of arguments: all this Arab Spring puts the world stability in danger! But they are wrong. Human nature is common regardless of geography.

“Each wave of the mass freedom movements – in Latin America in the 70s, Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and now in the Middle East – comes from the same source: a strong desire for liberty.”

But could a three decades-old experience from a chilly Baltic state be applicable on African shores in the 21st century? Inspirations from far can work. In the 1990s Poland itself adopted reform of the pension system based on the Chile model.

“In some aspects the Tunisians have more in common with the Poles than with the French: take our conservative attitude towards homosexuality, abortion or euthanasia,” Adam Balcer, programme director at the DemosEUROPA think-tank told IPS. “Differences between Polish regions are alike differences between the well developed coast and the under-developed interior of Tunisia.”

Aleksander Smolar, head of Batory Foundation, an NGO focused on building open society and improving the quality of democracy in Poland, added that for the centralised Arab states, Polish local government reform implemented in 1998 could come in useful.

“True, Tunisians are traditionally close to Southern Europe, they know very little about Poland,” said Smolar, who accompanied Lech Walesa to Tunis. “But on the other hand our relations are stripped of mutual complexes because Poland was never a colonial empire.”

Seen from Benghazi’s dusty and graffiti-covered post-revolutionary reality it appeared that Poland is courting the extremely busy, distracted and undecided Libyan bachelor. “There is a general interest, but on the ground they find it hard to make any decisions, not sure who of them should do it,” one Polish diplomat said.

Some have questioned the sincerity of the government’s sudden interest in Arab countries. “Polish foreign policy recently abounds with spectacular gestures aimed at establishing relations with the (North African) nations,” says the Zagranica Group, a platform for NGOs involved in international development cooperation.

“In our opinion it serves more to promote Poland than to building a substantial dialogue. We expect from the government to initiate an open and transparent process of evaluation of the development needs of the new democracies, engage the representatives of the region, as well as Polish civil society.”

Poland has strong competition. “For our presence in North Africa to bring results a change in foreign policy is needed: more development assistance, more scholarships,” Balcer said. “At present there are 300 students from the Middle East studying at Polish universities. Ukraine has 25 times more.”

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