As two days of meetings on the Normandy coast wound down Friday, the leaders of Group of Eight nations, better known as the G8, released a declaration in which they vowed to support "democratic reform around the world" and "aspirations for freedom."
They referred, specifically, to the aspirations of the pro-democracy movements that have swept the Arab world this spring, and more specifically, to the two countries where those movements have resulted in the downfall of authoritarian leaders, Tunisia and Egypt. The organization pledged about $20 billion in aid over the next two years to the governments of those two countries, made available through multilateral banks.
"We met with the Prime Ministers of Egypt and Tunisia," the G8 stated in its declaration, "and decided to launch an enduring partnership with those countries engaging in a transition to democracy and tolerant societies."
The Deauville Partnership, as the G8 named it after the French seaside town where the declaration occurred, is the most concrete step taken yet in the organization's broader effort to encourage democratization and the opening up of markets in North Africa and the Middle East.
"The G8 has long had an interest in development in the broader Middle East and North Africa," explained Zaria Shaw, a senior researcher with the University of Toronto's G8 Research Group. "But before, there were arguments about, 'Is democracy the best system for all of these countries?' Now there's a recognition that this is the best way. This isn't a top-down process. This a bottom-up movement."
In addition to Egypt and Tunisia, several other Middle Eastern countries were discussed in the declaration, though not all of them in ways likely to promote friendship between the G8 and those countries' leaders.
In the lengthy section of the declaration devoted to Libya, the group stated, "We demand the immediate cessation of the use of force against civilians by the Libyan regime forces as well as the cessation of all incitement to hostility and violence against the civilian population."
About Libya's authoritarian leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the group was unequivocal, saying, "He has no future in a free, democratic Libya. He must go."
When it came to two of the other Arab countries whose leaders have cracked down violently on protesters, though, the Western world's leaders weren't quite so blunt.
They said they were "appalled" by the deaths of protesters in Syria and called for an end to the violence, but backed away from a tougher stance amid objections from Russia.
In an earlier draft of the declaration, the organization had proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution against Damascus, but Russia, which has longstanding ties with Syria, insisted on a more diplomatic approach.
Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, told reporters at the summit, "There are no grounds to consider this issue in the U.N. Security Council."
Ultimately, the group agreed to temper its language, warning only that "further measures" would be taken if Syria doesn't heed the protesters' calls for reform.
The leaders also addressed Yemen, condemning the killings of protesters and encouraging the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to follow through with his earlier commitment to step down.
And they devoted several paragraphs to Israel and Palestine, in which they called for, among other things, "the easing of the situation in Gaza" and the "unconditional release" of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier abducted by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in 2006. Yet they offered no indication of how they might back up these demands.
As some observers have pointed out, the declaration is notable not only for the Arab countries it mentions but also for one it doesn't –- Bahrain. Since the start of Bahrain's pro-democracy uprisings three months ago, Western officials have said little. Obama's policy speech on the Middle East last week, in which he criticized the Bahraini government for its use of "mass arrests and brute force" against protesters, served as an exception.
Bahrain is a longtime ally of the U.S. and home to a U.S. navy fleet. Saudi Arabia, another key U.S. ally in the region, has sent troops to Bahrain to help the government suppress demonstrations.
As protesters have taken to the streets across the Middle East, the Iranian government has cheered them on, even while forbidding similar protests at home. The G8 noted this contradiction, stating, "We remain seriously concerned about the ongoing suppression of democratic rights in Iran, especially given that Iran has repeatedly professed support for freedom and democratic behaviour elsewhere in the region."
Here again, however, the group stopped short of suggesting any specific measures by which these demands might be enforced.
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