Interview with Ruprecht Polenz


19 March 2014

Sabancı University

Ruprecht Polenz is the former Member of the German Bundestag (1994-2013) and Mercator-IPC Senior Fellow. As Member of Parliament he held the Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The focal points of his work are foreign and security policy, with regional emphasis on the Middle East, in particular Iran and Turkey and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, he chairs the Bundestag's Parliamentary Control Panel under Section 41 (5) of the Foreign Trade and Payments Act and is a substitute member of the Joint Committee of the Bundestag and Bundesrat under Article 53a of the Basic Law.


INTERVIEW 2 POLENZ2In the year 2000, Ruprecht Polenz was the Secretary-General of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Today he is the President of the German Association for East European Studies and also Chairman of the Television Council of the ZDF (a national television broadcaster). Furthermore he is a member of the CDU's Federal Committee on Foreign and Security Policy and Vice-Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Münster University of Applied Sciences. He is a lawyer and has worked since 1980 for Northern Westphalia Chamber of Industry and Commerce, becoming its director for media and public relations in 1984.

Begüm Zorlu: You had expressed in an earlier interview that there are three paths, three scenarios that the future of Egypt can follow. The first and the most optimistic example you gave was the Turkish one, especially the decreased role of the military was essential for that optimism.

The second scenario that you had underlined was the Algerian one, the proposal that Egypt would be turning into the atmosphere of Algeria in early 1990's shaped with insecurity. The third scenario, the most exaggerated one that as you mentioned was that Egypt could take the path that would lead to the resemblance of the Pakistani state. To which scenario do you think it is leading to today?

Ruprecht Polenz: Of course these scenarios were black and white to make it clear of kind of further developments that I saw. I would say Egypt at the moment would be between Pakistan and Algeria. Unfortunately I don't see quite a while that the military will withdraw from Egypt. They have never done that. In fact they have always been in charge, in the Mubarak era and even after the fall of Mubarak. For the time being they will stay there. At this time the question that remains is that how much they will stay in power, how much they will be on the sphere.

What we have to see is that about the %40 percent of the Egyptian GDP is more or less influenced by the economic activities of the army. Maybe at the moment this is not only bad for Egypt because army structures are functioning and to some extent. This was the case in economic activities of the army. And what we all know is that state guided activities are not the best ones to run an economy. This is the case because they avoid competition, they avoid market mechanism, and it is a state monopoly that is run by the military. So in the long run an army run economy is not a competitive one.

Begüm Zorlu: Relating to this issue how does Europe perceive the Arab Spring? How does Europe react to the recent developments in the region?

Ruprecht Polenz: Of course there was skepticism among many Europeans because, there is an understanding that even if on Tahrir Square and elsewhere the demonstrators were posting demands according to our values about dignity, freedom, jobs still there was skepticism because of the question that combination of Islam with democracy can function. I did not share this perspective because I believe there is to some extent, there is an over exaggeration of religion in regard to state affairs.

The question you ask, the perception of Europe was partly this. Also on the other hand we had in the European Union also and our politics from the beginning was to support the future of these countries strengthening civil society, open markets, and help them to get to better education system. Especially if we look at education at the one hand it is very important on the other hand it is not a thing that can move from today to tomorrow, it is from today to one or two decades. Therefore it is difficult to help from the outside. We have also seen that for instance in Egypt the military prevented activities that aimed to strengthen civil society. This is to some extent true for Libya. Only in Tunisia it is possible in a way that as how we think that it would be useful for the country.

Begüm Zorlu: Does Germany have a different perspective, position than the European Union? Is it similar?

Ruprecht Polenz: I don't think so. All Europeans were caught on the wrong foot when these demonstrations began in the Middle East. We had some kind of a labor sharing in the European Union. With regard to the Mediterranean fronts the Southern countries like Spain and Italy were in the lead to define what Europe should do in the process. All three did not foresee what happened; especially the French were caught on the wrong foot and sided with Bin Ali in the process that he was being taken down. Afterwards we dusted, got used to the new situation and the European Union offered new programmes, possibilities for the region. But one has to admit that the means are limited. And the challenges are very high if you compare it to what has happened in 1990 in Eastern Europe. Our means were much bigger because we could offer a membership in the European Union, programmes that would help to get from here to there. And it has worked in those countries. In the Arab Countries the challenges are higher but the means are less. In the Arab Countries we can't offer them EU membership.

Begüm Zorlu: In an another interview you had expressed that Radical Islam is can be seen as a result of economic grievances that is dominant in these countries. Can economic improvements in these countries, in the region reduce these types of social mobilizations and organizations?

Ruprecht Polenz: Always I don't think that there is an immediate connection but it has to be underlined that of course if you are desperate for economic reasons you are more open to radicalism. If you are desperate you are open to extreme ideas to challenge your situation. This is because if you have something to lose and if you have some amount of personal property and if you have hope you are not open to these kinds of ideas.

Begüm Zorlu: Can we say that in the Middle East Authoritarianism has been replaced with Islamism ?

Ruprecht Polenz: I think that in all of these countries parties who are relying one way or the other to Islam and to translate, represent Islamic values into policy will be part of a way towards democracy. I think that there is a wider spectrum of Islamist parties meaning, relying on Islamic values. For instance Tunisia is a part of the Islam Brotherhood but it is different from the Egyptian example. In behavior and I would also say in ideology. The more open the political processes are, the more diverse and the more different Islamic parties will become in my view. This has been the case in Turkey for example.

Begüm Zorlu: There are spectacles; you have called it a spectacle as well that Muslims are not capable of democracy. What has been your opinion on this phrase?

Ruprecht Polenz: I think that it is a racist standpoint and it has been proven wrong by Turkey, it has been proven wrong Indonesia and by other countries that have majority Muslim population. There are a lot of shortcomings in Tunisia and Indonesia as well as in Turkey but nevertheless it is a wrong standpoint.

Also it has to be reminded that in the Western Sphere we have democracies with shortcomings as well. I don't think that this argument is right. For instance we have 4 million Muslims in Germany we have 80 million Muslims in Europe. Can we say that you are not capable of being a true democrat? This standpoint is totally wrong.

Begüm Zorlu: When we look at tomorrow, in your opinion what will be the future of the Arab Spring?

Ruprecht Polenz: I think that every country would have a different standpoint. They will be probably very different. I would say Tunisia at the moment has the best perspective provided that there is no interference from the outside, meaning from Saudi Arabia, Qatar which has money, strengthening some political forces in Tunisia with money or by Al Jazeera or so.

On the other hand in Syria we see no real chance to get a ceasefire. In between we have Libya in the danger of breaking apart. What we have in Egypt as it can be named as the 'Mubarak Light' perspective which is not the country should deserve.

Begüm Zorlu: What has been your opinion on the new constriction that was recently accepted by a referendum in Egypt?

Ruprecht Polenz: The problem in Egypt and the problem that all of these societies face is what kind of understanding of democracy you have. Is it 'the winner takes it all'? Is it if you take the 50 percent plus one you can do what you want? Or is democracy understood as the means to control state power, to balance conflicting interest in a way of compromise and to organize a pluralistic society and accept pluralism?

The key question is how these societies are coping with diversity and pluralism. The more pluralistic they are, the better they will be. If you have more freedom, and if the people are freer to decide how they want to live this is democracy. Unfortunately this understanding of pluralism is the biggest hurdle for Islamist parties. They have, at least many of them have the opinion that if we are in charge as a political power the perspective that we have to educate power. We have to educate them in the religious base but I see a big difference in politics and pedagogic studies.