Cairo was the host to the first Arab-European Liberal Forum on the Basics of Liberalism. Some one hundred delegates from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea gathered in the Egyptian capital from May 16 to 18, 2013 for discussions on the basics of liberalism and current political developments in this part of the world. The event was cosponsored by the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) and the European Liberal Forum (ELF) in Brussels.
Bridging the Gap – the organizers had chosen the title of the conference with hindsight as the objective of the political dialogue was to identify where liberals from Europe and the Arab world agree and where this is not the case. In special sessions, the participants – among them leaders of political parties, academics and civil society leaders - dealt with the basic liberal values in the course of history, the role of religion in their respective societies and liberal economic programs to tackle the challenges of a globalized world. "It may sound surprising, but I have seen hardly any differences between the programs of the liberal parties in Europe and the Arab world", said Alexandra Thein, member of the European Parliament and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
Speakers from both regions highlighted the common points. Dr. Osama Ghazali Harb, President of the Democratic Front Party (DFP) in Egypt said that the origins of Arab liberalism lie in Europe; politically, this has become a problem as some foes of the ideas of freedom depict liberalism as a "foreign" ideology, yes some even defame it as being against Islam.
On the other side, Dimitris Katsoudas, Director of the "Forum for Greece" stated that the European-Arab relationship were never a one-way-street. He recalled that Arab scientists had translated the classical Greek literature thereby assuring their revival in the West. Corentin de Salle from the Centre Jean Gol in Belgium added: "European liberalism has its roots in the Arab civilization."
Some two years after the historic uprisings in the Arab world liberally minded Arabs are not happy with the turn of events – and avoid the term "Arab Spring". In Tunisia - and even more so in Libya and Egypt - the liberal forces feel marginalized. One participant from Upper Egypt said that what started as a liberal revolution has been kidnapped by Islamist political forces.
The conference agreed that democracy alone is not a panacea. "Liberalism is not possible without democracy, but there are many democracies which do not respect the liberal principles and rights", said Prof. Aris Hatzis from the University of Athens. Egypt is just one of many countries moving in the direction of what has been termed an "illiberal democracy" in which the freedom of the press and the equality of rights of all the citizens are not always respected, participants noted.
In a final session the conference discussed how the outside world should deal with these developments on the Southern rim of the Mediterranean. Mrs Thein, the member of the European Parliament, had a clear position: Europe and the West need to draw "red lines" in dealing with the Islamist governments.