Poland and the Arab Spring: A new opening?

For more than a year and a half, Poland has been making efforts to support the democratisation and modernisation of the Arab world. Certainly, the success of Poland’s transformation is not a model that can be transferred en masse to a different cultural context. This does not mean, however, that some of its elements may not potentially be inspiring for the Arab reformers. Nevertheless, if Poland really wishes to consolidate its presence in the Arab world, it has to improve considerably a practical dimension of its foreign policy.


Initially, Poland’s attitude to the Arab Spring was ambivalent. Not without reason: it was feared that the problems of the South would dominate the European Neighbourhood Policy at the expense of the East, which is more important for Poland. Nonetheless, Poland decided that its own political transformation might serve as a model for Arab states and that, as a result of its promotion, Poland’s position on the international stage, as well as in the European Union, might be strengthened.

Additional arguments suggested that Poland’s engagement in the southern neighbourhood could contribute to increased support for the Eastern Partnership among those EU member states which have traditionally been advocates of the southern orientation (France, Italy and Spain). Poland also realized that it possesses some strong points which can facilitate its engagement in the region. For instance, Poland is not burdened with any colonial past in the region or any tradition of long-term confrontation with Muslims. The centuries of Poland’s comprehensive historical relations with the Ottoman Empire and Turkic peoples (i.e. Polish Tatars) are practically unique in Europe in terms of the scale of coexistence and cultural diffusion.

Legacy of communism as an asset

Moreover, in the last decades, owing to its minimal economic presence in the region, Poland has not been discredited by maintaining cordial relationships with local dictators. Another strong point of Poland is – paradoxically – the legacy of communism. Putting aside all the serious cultural differences, Poland and numerous Muslim countries share significant similarities in terms of historical experiences (such as authoritarianism, the role of the army and a centrally controlled economy).

The Catholic Church, too, offers an interesting example for Muslim societies faced with the need to redefine the place of religion in the new political order. The Catholic Church in Poland is intensely present in the Mediterranean Basin. It is associated with John Paul II – a figure liked and respected by Muslims thanks to his promotion of the idea of affinity of all Abrahamic religions – and is unquestionably an interesting partner for dialogue for moderate Muslims.

What could foster this dialogue is the fact that the conservatism and religiousness of Polish society are in the main greater than in Western Europe, thanks to which the Poles are generally more tolerant towards the presence of religious symbols in public spaces (e.g. wearing a hijab by female students) than, say, the French. On ideological issues (homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia) they are more similar to many Muslims than they are to Swedes, for example. Last but not least, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland is the only such church in Europe which has established a day of Islam, which features shared ecumenical prayers with Muslims.

A crucial issue for the modernisation and democratisation of Arab countries will be the shape of relations between Turkey and the EU, as well as Turkey’s internal situation. This is because Turkey is very popular in the Arab world and its rather successful marriage of Islam, democracy (though imperfect) and the free market is considered as exemplary. In this context, the very good Polish-Turkish relationship, which has recently been intensified, should be recognized as one of  Poland’s strong points.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that Poland has certain liabilities with regard to its engagement in the Arab world. The level of knowledge about Islam, even among educated Poles, is usually smaller than in the case of Western Europeans. Prejudices against Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, tend to be greater than in some Western countries. Also, a challenge for Poland’s image in the Arab world may be its rather pro-Israeli stance on the international scene.

A chain of high-level visits

Since 2011, Poland has been active in the southern neighbourhood on an unprecedented scale, as far as its previous engagement both in bilateral relations and in promoting civil society. It has supported the Arab reformers and shared its own experiences with them. In 2011, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski visited North African states four times (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya twice). Sikorski’s visit to the capital of insurgent Libya (Benghazi) was the first official visit of a European minister to the city. At the same time, three foreign ministers from Arab countries visited Poland. Moreover, Poland became a member of a Contact Group on Libya, comprised of more than 35 foreign ministers. Poland’s new position towards Arab states is illustrated by the fact that out of four Polish ambassadors nominated for positions within the European External Action Service in recent years, two represent the EU on Arab matters, including Saudi Arabia – a key power in the region.

Most importantly, for the first time in history, there has been wider cooperation between Polish and Arab NGOs. These relations have been promoted by Polish authorities, which have organised or assisted numerous training sessions and conferences of Arab civil servants and activists, joint NGO projects and visits of Polish delegations to Arab countries. The most significant visit was that of Lech Wałęsa, the former leader of Solidarity, in April 2011 to Tunisia. The Marshal of the Senate of the Republic of Poland, Bogdan Borusewicz, another legendary figure of the Solidarity movement, visited North Africa several times and is one of the key Polish politicians encouraging Poland’s involvement in the democratisation process in the Arab world.  In October 2011, a delegation from North Africa, including a large group of Egyptian officials, was invited to Poland to act as observers during the Polish parliamentary election. As a result, the European Solidarity Centre was the only European organisation to monitor the parliamentary election in Egypt (December 2011, January 2012).

In 2011, for the first time, the problem of democratisation in the Arab world became one of the priorities within the grant programmes of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It maintained this position in programmes realized in 2012. Poland chose Tunisia to be its main partner in activities aiming at promotion of the Polish transformational experiences. At the beginning of 2013, an international institute supporting democratisation and modernisation in Tunisia is to be launched. It will coordinate all Polish-Tunisian initiatives and projects and will be financially supported from various sources, including the Polish government.

Reform of local government as an example to share

The most significant Polish export product to Arab world has become the country’s successful local government reform. Arab states are plagued by serious regional differences and centralised political systems. At present, they receive financial aid from various sources; decentralisation and effective use of foreign aid on a local level may turn out to be the key to economic success, as well as the best insurance against authoritative tendencies.  Polish NGOs, media and embassies are supporting also the development of free media and NGOs in the Arab World by sharing Polish experiences in building civil society at home.

Key principles of the Polish democratic opposition were the rejection of violence and the concept of a round table, i.e. an evolutionary transformation based on dialogue and inclusion of former enemies in political life after the change of the political system.  Invoking this experience, Poland invited in 2012 representatives of Arab administrations and civil societies to the SENSE programme, which aims at training in political negotiations and social dialogue.

In Tunisia, trade unions played an important role in overthrowing Ben Ali’s regime. Therefore Solidarity, which played the key role in the Polish revolution, established relations with Arab partners, providing them with know-how about the functioning of trade unions in Europe. Poland’s potential role as a source of inspiration for Arab societies has been positively received in these societies, the best proof of which is the fact that the most influential pan-Arab television network, Al Jazeera, produced a documentary series devoted to the Polish transformation. The network has only made similar films about Brazil, Turkey and the Republic of South Africa.

Beyond NGOs and democracy assistance

However, the Polish assets will remain unfulfilled and Poland’s new engagement in the region will become unsustainable without an increase of practical engagement in the Arab World from the Polish side (scholarships, official development aid, FDI and trade).

It is important to remember that Poland’s diplomatic activity in the Middle East was largely linked with the Polish presidency in the EU in the second half of 2011.  From autumn 2011 to December 2012, the Polish foreign minister has not visited any Arab country. A year and a half after the Arab Spring began, unfortunately, no decisive rise in Poland’s practical engagement in this region can be observed.

Changing this state of affairs will not be easy. Again, the Arab world is not a priority for Poland. Secondly, this shift would require a fundamental modification of the practical dimension of Poland’s foreign policy. It is worth bearing in mind that for years Poland has allocated only 0.08% of its GDP for development assistance. Proportionately this is less than twice what a considerably poorer Turkey allocates and nearly four times less than Portugal, which is not an evidently richer country than Poland. The percentage of foreign students at Polish universities – particularly non-European students – is the lowest in the EU (they amounted to merely 1.1% of all students in the 2010/2011 academic year). Poland’s investments abroad in relation to the size of its economy are also numbered among the smallest in Europe. With regard to foreign trade and FDI,  North Africa remains mostly a terra incognita for the Polish business community.

Summing up, taking into consideration Poland’s shortcomings, its self-limitation to  engagement only in certain issues in several countries of the Arab world was an inevitable outcome. On the other hand, focusing almost solely on Tunisia would be an excessive restriction, which could be interpreted as a merely seasonal interest in the region. Therefore, Poland should also become more active in Libya or Egypt.  However, putting such an ambition into practice requires an enhancement of the entire Polish foreign policy.

It would also be particularly valuable if Poland’s cooperation with Central European states within the framework of the Visegrad Group was applied more practically than general official declarations on necessity of aiding the Arab world, since every Central European state boasts some transformational success of its own. An establishment of a pooling and sharing mechanism, more coordination and cooperation and common commitments concerning more serious financial and institutional engagement in the region among the Visegrad Group states will be more than welcomed.

In fact, what Arab states need very much right now is a tightening of regional cooperation on a micro- and macro-scale, which – according to economic estimates – could increase economic growth as much as 2% annually in the case of North Africa (Maghreb). In this area, Poland together with the Visegrad Group countries, could help by sharing its experiences with this kind of cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Baltic Basin (the Visegrad Plus).

Adam Balcer

Adam Balcer

is Programme Director "The EU and the new global contract" at demosEUROPA - Centre for European Strategy. urrently, he is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at the Centre for East European Studies, the University of Warsaw.