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25 July 2011

Outpost in the Desert

How Hungary Represents the Western World in Tripoli


There is a little known aspect to the Libyan war: as the West was busy trying to bring down the Ghadafi regime, Hungary continued to represent the western world in Ghadafi’s capital of Tripoli. As western planes bombed key installations in the city, and most countries closed their embassies and withdrew their staff, the Hungarian embassy remained open.

It also represented the EU, Hungary having assumed the rotating presidency of the Union. But as time went on, and the conflict did not end, more and more countries asked Hungary to represent their interests in Libya.

Intriguingly, this was a role Turkey would have liked to play. In fact, Ankara missed no occasion to boast about its diplomatic prowess, priding itself at great length on being “trusted by all sides” and thus in a unique position to mediate, help, and find diplomatical solutions. This attitude was part of the fundamental diplomatic strategy under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey regards itself as neither “East” nor “West”, and aims at becoming the “centre of gravity” of the Middle East, the determining political actor in the region – or at least an actor without, or against whom, nothing can be decided.

But on 2 May Turkey closed its embassy, after Libyan rebels protested against Ankara’s close ties with the regime. Hungary became the main diplomatic channel for any transactions between the Libyan regime and a growing number of other countries: Canada, Italy, Greece, and Croatia. In the first days of June, the United States joined the club, and the Hungarian embassy became the official representative of US interests in the Ghadafi-controlled part of Libya.

Unofficially, it had already been doing that job for a number of weeks, and is doing the same for many more countries. It represents, essentially, the entire western world in Tripoli. “Recently, we managed to get an appropriate passport for a British citizen”, said Ambassador Béla Marton in a media interview. Most visibly perhaps, Hungarian diplomats secured the liberation of four journalists who had been held by Ghadafi forces for over a month. Two of those journalists were Americans, James Foley and Clare Morgana Gillis,who writes for the American magazine The Atlantic as well as for USA Today and the German daily Die Welt. The two others were the British freelancer Nigel Chandler, and a Spanish photographer, Manuel Varela. (After they were freed, The Atlantic and “Die Welt” published detailed accounts of the story, but “Die Welt” failed to mention Hungary’s role in any way.)

Libyan forces had detained them on 5 April, after shooting up their car. A fifth colleague, photographer Anton Hammerl, a dual Austrian and South African national, was to die in the desert, with a bullet wound to the stomach.

While the captives went through a gruelling ordeal, Hungarian ambassador Béla Marton was doing his best to get them free. He finally secured their release, after lengthy negotiations. In the end, a Libyan court handed the four journalists a suspended sentence for illegally entering the country, and they were handed over to Hungarian diplomats, who then escorted them all the way to Tunisia.

Officially, the request for help in the matter did not come from the American government, but from The Atlantic. Unofficially however, US diplomats were closely following developments. Béla Marton’s successful handling of the affair probably had a lot to do with the subsequent US decision to ask Hungary to represent its interests in Tripoli.

It is not all glamour and excitement. Ambassador Marton has said in media interviews that he does the dishes, and the consul cooks. There are daily gunfights, and daily phone calls from foreign citizens in need. Sometimes in need of comfort, above all: “We also provide some forms of psychological aid. Some people call us on a daily basis, because they feel better if they can speak to us,” Marton observed.

The travails of the Tripoli embassy shine a light on the newly independent-minded Hungarian foreign policy. All other Western countries closed their embassies in Ghadafi-controlled Libya, only Hungary did not. That gave Budapest a unique position to assist Western allies. As a side effect, Hungary’s pivotal diplomatic role in Libya serves to counter claims in some media that the much-criticized Orbán government is internationally isolated.

To keep in touch diplomatically with dictatorial regimes, however, is not the essence of Budapest’s strategy in the Middle East. Hungary has gone through a comparable process of upheaval and struggle to break free from an oppressive regime at home. It wants Arab democratic forces to achieve the same.

Much has been said about analogies between the “Arab Spring” and Eastern Europe’s successful liberation movement of 1989. Hungary, and other formerly communist Central European countries like Poland, have offered to share their experience with the new democratic movements in the Arab world. It is the best Hungary has to offer, and it may do more for a transformation of the Middle East than any number of bombs and warplanes.

To that aim, Hungary has been organizing conferences, workshops and political negotiations with democratic forces in Tunisia and Egypt, ever since April. On 27 April, Foreign Minister János Martonyi held a keynote speech in Hammamet, Tunisia, at a conference on “The Challenges of Democratic Transition and the Role of the Civil Sphere”. Martonyi also had bilateral meetings with the new Tunisian leadership, where both sides agreed to deepen contacts and continue to share valuable advice and experience.

On 10 May, the countries of Central Europe’s “Visegrád Four” (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) organized a workshop in Cairo. Representatives of established, of new and even of not yet quite operational democratic groups and parties came together to learn about the intricacies of building a free society. Hungary was represented by one of its most experienced senior diplomats, Ambassador István Gyarmati, currently head of the International Centre for Democratic Transition (ICDT) in Budapest.

Most recently, on 9 June, Hungarian experts shared their experience in democratic constitutional law in Tunis. The workshop was hosted by the Tunisian Association for Constitutional Law. Writing the right kind of constitution is one of the biggest challenges for Tunisia and Egypt, which have managed to get rid of their respective dictators, but not yet of their systems, and where the army remains the key element of power. Much depends on the foundation that will be laid with those new constitutions – so tricky a task that Tunisia has postponed the whole schedule. Elections for a Constitutional Assembly will now be held on 23 October and not 24 July as initially planned. After a new Constitution is adopted, there will be parliamentary elections to form a first democratic government.

Egypt has opted for the opposite procedure: first parliamentary elections, then a new constitution, though it was not clear in mid-June who would get to write it. Even the principle of first having a parliamentary election was encountering resistance. Secular groups fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would win such elections and thus win the chance to draft the constitution.

That illustrates the limits to comparisons between 1989 and 2011. In East Central Europe, there was really only one vision after the Fall of Communism: Western Democracy. In the Islamic World, the West is a model, but Islam is another, and military dictatorship a tradition. It will be a far rockier road than that of Central Europe after 1989. By getting involved in the experience, Hungary will not only give advice, it will also learn, and develop contacts and insights that may over time help to foster beneficial relations with a new Middle East.




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