OPINION

The role of Greece in the Arab Spring

The southern neighborhood of Europe and Greece is being rocked by a political earthquake. It is undergoing changes that the international community had not foreseen and we have all found ourselves faced with an extraordinary and unpredictable situation.

No one case is exactly the same as another. Nevertheless, it was clear early on that there is a commonality: the demand of the people of the region for more democracy and equal opportunities for progress, growth and prosperity.

Protecting our compatriots and Greece

Amid this extraordinary situation, the Greek government was called upon to manage an international crisis with potentially dangerous consequences for Greece.

The first thing we had to ensure was that we could provide assistance to our compatriots who were in danger. We succeeded in this and repatriated hundreds of Greeks from Egypt and Libya.

At the same time, we shielded the country by implementing, along with our partners and allies, plans to contain a possible increase in pressure from immigration.

Enhancing the country?s geopolitical position and boosting our diplomatic capital

>We offered the island of Crete and its infrastructure as a central hub through which one of the biggest evacuations in modern history could be coordinated. Thousands of Chinese citizens were able to flee the tempest of war through our country, while thanks to Greek mediation, three Dutchmen, the only Western military personnel to be arrested by the regime, were able to return home.

We made military facilities available to operations dictated by the United Nations Security Council. This was not just in response to our obligations toward our allies, but a conscious decision to protect the unarmed civilians that were being threatened by Gaddafi?s regime during the critical hours of the siege of Benghazi.

At the same time, we invested in diplomacy. We supported the UN?s role in the lead and maintained crucial lines of communication open. We suspended the operation of the Greek Embassy in Tripoli, without however, severing ties, and were one of the first countries to establish a diplomatic presence in Benghazi and contact with the National Transitional Council. Soon, the Greek flag will wave over Tripoli again.

Greece?s participation in the International Contact Group for Libya from the onset confirmed the country?s internationally recognized role.

Being present in the Arab world

We improved our institutional ties with the Arab League, where we were granted observer status. In Egypt, we began laying the foundations for relations with the new political leadership from early on. Greek officials were the first Europeans to visit Cairo after the regime change and they met with representatives from the entire political spectrum in Egypt. It was at this point that we made a political investment that is already beginning to bear fruit. We strengthened our ties with key countries, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, with frequent visits and close contacts.

The day after in Libya

In Libya, the priority is to bring the situation under control, without acts of retaliation staining the just struggle of the rebelling people. The country?s natural wealth, which has been a curse to its people, needs to become a blessing. Instead of being a vehicle of wealth for the few, it needs to become an engine of growth for the majority. This requires transparency, respect for the country?s sovereignty and proper management.

Greece was active from the onset in assisting in drawing up a reliable transitional process that will ultimately lead to democratic governance. However, dealing with immediate humanitarian needs is the biggest challenge right now. In Paris, we announced that Greece is in a position, through the Athens Water Company, to immediately increase the supply of water to Tripoli by 50 percent. Crete, meanwhile, because of its geographical position and infrastructure, will remain a hub of international humanitarian efforts.

The situation in Syria cannot continue

The regime is openly attacking its citizens. But, violence simply breeds more violence. Experience has taught us that leaders who resist the tide of change will be drowned in it.

We are moving cautiously, because the regional fallout from the case of Syria could be extremely destabilizing to the entire Middle East. One thing is certain, however: that the Assad regime, with its policy of repression and raw violence, is on the way out, never to return.

Urgency for a just Palestinian solution

The prolongation of the Palestinian dispute affects stability in the entire region. The Palestinians must finally get the country they deserve, and the Israelis must experience the conditions of security that they also deserve. The solution can only arise through the peace process. European diplomacy needs to provide assurances at the UN General Assembly that instead of conflict, we will join forces. It is feasible.

Greece traditionally has ties of friendship with the Palestinian people and a new, strong bond of trust with Israel. We are talking to both sides so that the Palestinian petition to the UN can represent an opportunity for a new beginning. Their success will also be ours.

Europe?s presence in rebuilding

For democracy to thrive and change to take root, there needs to be growth and social welfare among the people of these nations. We are not talking about financial assistance from Europe. We are talking about the massive investment Europe can make in its southern neighborhood with a view to its own long-term interests. Here, Greece can play a significant role and it will aspire to do so.

* Stavros Lambrinidis is the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs.