La plateforme de débats européens Debates.EU m’a interviewé sur mon travail à la Commission des affaires étrangères du Parlement européens, mon volontariat pour faciliter l’intégration des réfugiés syriens via Syrians Got Talent, ainsi que mes responsabilités précédentes comme analyste politique de l’ONG anglaise Crisis Action au Moyen Orient, sur la protection des civils en Syrie.
L’entretien est ici sur le site, où copié ci-dessous, en anglais (mai 2016).
Hi Schams, thank you for joining us.
You’ve been working and advising on EU-Arab/Middle East relations for a good, long time now at the EU Parliament.
What are some of the biggest differences you notice in those relationships from when you first started compared to today?
Schams El Ghoneimi
When I started working on EU-Middle East relations as a trainee at the EU Delegation in Egypt, in 2006, Europe’s perception of the Arab world was very different from now.
The Arab world was not able to reform itself, or so they -and we- believed.
Things have changed tremendously since the Arab Spring in 2011. My colleagues and friends never contemplated that millions of Arabs, women and men, young and old would take to the streets peacefully, calling for bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity. International experts believed any Arab uprising would be solely based on food prices, not on rampant corruption and widespread police abuse.
That was a very intense year in which the basic prejudices underpinning the European -and Arab- perception of Arab politics changed for the better. So when I would introduce myself as a French Egyptian citizen, people would not see the Egyptian part as an old, dormant state any more, rather a vibrant people aspiring to a better world, bold enough to start a democratic revolution on January 25, 2011.
The fact that so many Arab countries had the same democratic energy at once transformed how others as well as Arabs saw themselves – regardless of the challenges ahead, people’s dignity was restored. The saying « Raise your head high, you’re an Egyptian » was everywhere in Egypt for example.
I’ve attached a photo I took of Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011. These moments will never be forgotten and are the new frame in which millions of Arabs think of themselves, despite all the difficulties faced since 2011.
Wow. So you’ve witnessed a tremendous amount of change and progress. When dealing with foreign policy and countries in the Middle East, what’s an area that Europeans often struggle with? What are those cultural gaps we’d all benefit from understanding better?
Schams El Ghoneimi
Europeans know very little of the contemporary Arab world, and the way our media works reinforces mutual prejudices instead of explaining how complex each region is.
The Arab world is not dangerous -millions of people live there, watch TV, eat with family, go out, chat and go to work. Most Europeans forget the simple facts of life: Arabs are not that different from them. If you meet locals, from Tunisia to Lebanon, people will be happy to show you their country and will see you as an individual, not as a representative of a former colonial empire for example.
So the more we break the ice and actually engage, the more we can see the similarities we share.
For example, if you start talking with women who wear the Islamic headscarf, you’ll soon realize there is no link between being religious and wearing it – it’s just a societal phenomenon, and it’s a new one as my grand-mother’s 1960s Cairo never used to see veiled women. So the more you engage, the more you learn that « things are more complicated ».
In a nutshell, we as Europeans forget how complex and diverse Arabs are, and vice-versa. Our European societes are incredibly diverse and have gone through a lot, Soviet occupation, World War 2, the Holocaust, the fall of democratic Germany, Italy, Romania and Spain to fascism: so has the Arab world in its own way. We still have rampant anti-semitism, islamophobia, shocking discriminations against women -women’s right to abortion is not even in the EU acquis yet-, and the same applies to the Arab world in its own way, with millions of progressive voices but also millions of lunatics who, in times of economic and political crisis, speak louder than the majority.
I’m not saying we are the same, but I am. Everywhere you find the same ratio of wonderful people and, unfortunately, of not-so-wonderful people as well.
I hope that answers your question – which by the way implies that Europeans all have one shared perception of the Arab world, while Italians or British or Bulgarians have a very different perspective depending on their respective history. Southern Italians see themselves as Mediterraneans, Bulgarians tend to put the Arabs in the same basket as their former Ottoman rulers, while British people might think of Lawrence of Arabia and how the British Empire was the best thing ever – Europe, too, is incredibly diverse.
That makes a lot of sense. Particularly the idea that the avg. citizen in an Arab country leads an avg. life somewhat similar to ours. Looking ahead, what are the relationships we should expect to see growing in the future? Anything we’d be surprised to hear about? More of the same status quo?
Schams El Ghoneimi
As a political analyst I cannot predict the future unfortunately, but the consequences of the Arab spring have been so deep for EU-Arab and EU-Middle East relations that I would not say there is a status quo, actually.
Young people aspire for political change. Half of the Arab world’s 400 million are under 25, and the total population will double in 30 years. So expect more Arab springs, and more diplomatic conundrum!
Nobody expected that tens of millions would chant against their leaders in 2011 – and change hasn’t stopped since, contrary to media perceptions. Europe has had to reboot its European Neighbourhood Policy, all the democratic changes occurred without any speech from European « leaders ». It just happened, that’s history.
Working or studying EU-Middle East relations has been fascinating since 2011 on, although I liked studying and working on it before too. Those relations are bound to evolve as Tunisians become more demanding from their European counterparts, as Egyptians fight for the rule of law and a totally different relationship between citizens and authority, as Syrians break the wall of fear the Assads have imposed for 46 years.
But Europe is changing too. Our aging population and Asia’s competitive economy are huge challenges to us keeping our welfare system. Europe or foreigners -or these days Europe’s Muslims- become the scapegoats of populist, often xenophobic movements reaching 28% of the votes last December in France, my native country. The entire European project, the most inspiring democratic project we have seen in a century, is at stake – we seem to take democracy and human rights for granted in Europe, we are wrong.
The Arab world is awakening and Europe is fading away: EU-Arab relations will be largely determined by these trends, and we are all responsible for letting it go down this road, time to wake up!
You make it all sound so exciting! Moving on to another subject you are quite passionate about, can you tell us what you’re seeing as the main obstacles to solving the ongoing refugee situation? Are there specific policies you believe we should be advocating for?
Schams El Ghoneimi
As most of Europe’s new refugees come from the Middle East, that is a clear reminder that we should engage more in trying to help this region overcome its crisis, at least by hosting these women and men in a decent, humane way in accordance with our post-war values.
Europe may not be ready to tackle the crisis in Syria and Iraq, but it has to be up to its reputation – and so far I as a European and Arab citizen have had mixed feelings of pride -listening to Merkel- and shame -listening to other leaders making racist statements against Muslims, as if my father’s religion made him dangerous, a point I made lately in my reply to Politico on Europe’s Muslims.
Our EU Member States have agreed to dump the Geneva Convention and deport refugees to Turkey, which is not a safe country for activists and journalists. Unfortunately despite the UN and all humanitarian NGOs condemning this agreement, our Governments have decided to do away with principles – a dangerous precedent for fundamental rights.
Once we understand that the world and history is watching us, that our past and future generations are watching us, we need to stop stigmatizing and dehumanizing millions of people, stop using the « us » and « them » rhetoric which further divides us all, and recognize that the better we welcome refugees the better our common future will be. My refugee friends have fled Syria against their will, for their children to go to school or get treated in hospital. They are talented and full of dreams, all we need is to give them a helping hand instead of fearing them.
The EU got almost as many refugees from the Balkans in 1992, who were on average less educated according to OECD studies. That is why I co-organized « Syrians Got Talent » in Brussels to show the beautiful stories behind my friends who, at the risk of their lives, crossed the Mediterranean on a raft with 150 people. The refugees who attended our concert are future European citizens: they want to learn our languages, they want to work or study. Yamel wants to become a social worker, Basel wants to teach the guitare as he did for 30 years in Damascus, Lotus wants to be a dentist: all made it recently to our continent, and all will contribute positively.
In terms of policies, EU countries are extremely diverse in their response. Swedes are developping smart phone apps for refugees to connect with locals, while France still bans most refugees from working – how do we expect people to integrate if they cannot work? In Belgium, Dutch-speaking institutes do a great job while French-speaking institutes are almost inexistent in comparison. Once refugees start learning the language and leave their camp, they need to get housing – often enough, the only landlords that accept refugees are in remote, socially excluded areas as I can tell from my own friends’ experience.
If we tackle our rising paranoia against Muslim refugees, invest in social inclusion with smart education and housing policies, we will be on the right track.
Schams, that may sound like a big undertaking to some, but I believe we can do it! Thank you again for joining us this week, I’ll leave you with just this final question. Can you tell us a bit about the event Syrians Got Talent you put together, and what you feel it accomplished?
Schams El Ghoneimi
This Syrian Got Talent concert was one of the most beautiful parties we ever organised. Two hundred Brussels locals and Syrian -as well as Iraqi- refugees gathered to listen to talented musicians who have fled Syria. We fully self-funded the event and managed to put a lot of people in touch.
Many Europeans are willing to spend time and attention to help refugees find a new home in Europe, and most refugees are socially secluded, starting a new life with few contacts, little knowledge of the language and no idea where to even start to study, work and live again.
If anybody wants to help, please do not hesitate to contact me, there are many projects happening across the continent and it makes me very proud to see that Greeks, Germans or Dutch people can be so generous. The mainstream media should cover this a lot more, instead of focusing on the worst news and giving everyone the impression the glass is half empty, it is not – it is more than half full.
That truly sounds amazing! Thank you again for joining us.