His journey went unnoticed at a time when the whole world had its eyes fastened on the United States and their presidential contest: on 3 November 2020 Charles Michel, president of the European Council, spent a few hours in Cairo for a meeting with Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi. The idea, Brussels explained, was to consult with one of the most important Arab leaders at a time when the crisis rekindled in France around those cartoons of the Prophet was likely to cast a shadow over relations between the West and the Arab world. The Belgian statesman’s declaration, tweeted from the Egyptian capital, is worth its weight in baffle gab:
The recent attacks in Europe were aimed at our fundamental values, our freedom of conscience and worship. If we are to be completely resolved to fight terrorism, we must also further the dialogue with our partners. Today, I am in Egypt to unite our forces.
This incident provides a good illustration of all the ambiguity which prevails between the European Union and the Arab Republic of Egypt. The union of forces between a European entity which vaunts its “fundamental values” and a country south of the Mediterranean which is going out of its way to deserve its reputation as a ruthless dictatorship raises many questions not to say suspicions. The overwhelming dominance of Realpolitik has greatly compromised the observance of those values of which Europeans are so proud.
Recent history sheds light on the new priorities in Egypto-European relations. “I believe that as the years go by, relations between the EU and Egypt have evolved,” Koert Debbeuf explains. He is a research fellow at the Flemish University of Brussels and editor in chief of the website euobserver.com. He spent five years in Cairo from 2011 to 2016 as representative of the liberal group in the European parliament.
Very formal before 2011 and focused on small projects with little hope of development, they rose to a stage of intense cooperation when a wind of democratic change blew over the region and finally boiled down in recent years to the purely practical: the fight against illegal immigration and terrorism. So, after 2011, these relations had improved but not substantially. There were at least a few possibilities for investing not only in the local economy but in the society as a whole and even in democracy. But Egyptian leaders never wanted to go down that road.
“Torture has become systematic”
But there are matters of worse concern. Since the July 2013 coup which put an end to a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, Europe’s Egyptian partner has floundered, under the iron hand of Marshall Sisi, into a system of governance based on the suppression of freedom and the repression of any and every protest. “The human rights crisis in Egypt is glaringly obvious,” Egyptian researcher for North Africa with Amnesty International Hussein Baoumi observes from his Tunis office.
Torture has become systematic, the security forces use the anti-terrorist laws to repress political opponents, critical voices, or even human rights activists. Thousands of people are victims of this repression and find themselves in gaol, tortured and then tried: journalists who are just doing their job, attorneys, people whose only crime was to criticise the way the Covid pandemic has been handled, etc. Infringements on freedom of speech have become the rule, especially on the Internet; for example, people find themselves apprehended for spreading ‘fake news’ just because they gave their opinion on the social networks. LGBT people also run the risk of being gaoled. There are also enforced disappearances and, last but not east, death sentences continue being carried out [some fifty in October 2020, EDITOR’S NOTE]”
Relying on the support it gets from Washington, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Tel Aviv, the Egyptian regime is all the more indifferent to criticisms for its handling of human rights issues, as the European Union itself, although its “values” are under vicious attack on the banks of the Nile, turns a blind eye or contents itself with purely formal remarks or pieces of advice. The need for a stable Egypt, a sacrosanct argument defended by the most influential European capitals, is the basis for the bilateral relations between that country and the EU. For its part, Egypt is careful to cultivate its image as a useful partner, and there are voices in Brussels that laud its exemplary measures against clandestine crossings. Witness the declaration made on 20 September 2018 by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, while his country held the rotating presidency of the EU, praising Egypt as “the only North African country that has succeeded since 2016 in preventing migrant departures” by way of the sea.
Aid frozen by Cairo
These friendly relations have not failed to bolster the self-esteem, not to say the arrogance, of such a self-confident regime. Thus it has not been possible to carry out a number of programmes of cooperation planned by Brussels over the last two years because Cairo demands that one of the general conditions governing this aid be done away with, always the same article, No. 26, which provides for the possibility of suspension in the event of serious human rights violations. Since 2018, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has notified the European Commission that it does not accept or will no longer accept this clause 26.
Taken aback by this stance,, the Europeans have sought a compromise: they are keen to pursue at least some programmes in support of socio-economic sectors and the civil society, not directly related to human rights, such as the rehabilitation of informal neighbourhoods. But the tug-of-war goes on, Egypt having made this a matter of principle.
Now in Cairo, informed observers know that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs comes under pressure from the security services and that the technical ministries are the ultimate fall guys. In other words, cooperation has become a hostage to political tensions.
The Egyptian regime is not running much of a risk, it is unimpressed by the sums involved. At present, the financial stocks of subsidies amount to 1.3 billion euros. These are budgetary aids, sectorial aids, contributions to development agencies, grants to public partners or NGOs. This instrument of European Neighbourhood Policy represents around 115 million euros allotted each year to Egypt. The sum is not enormous for a country with a population of 100 million. Morocco receives 200 million, Tunisia 300, the same as Palestine (if we include what it gets from UNRWA). Those 115 million pale by comparison with US aid or the sums supplied by the IMF. Though, of course, these funds are gifts, not loans.
For the sake of efficiency, the EU focuses on certain sectors like water, energy, small and medium-sized businesses’ access to financing, development programmes for informal neighbourhoods in Greater Cairo. Not to mention the more discreet assistance provided to a few NGOs. And yet for the moment, the Union is unable to allocate these sums.
However, the major European countries are probably not particularly exercised by this state of affairs. From their point of view, the issues of trade, migration and antiterrorism are infinitely more important. Thus, for example France, Germany and Italy have prioritised the signature of armaments contracts, respectively for fighter bombers, submarines, and frigates, amounting to billions of dollars.
So, while these countries pay lip service in the European Council to a human rights posture, their banks or development agencies are bound by no human rights clause when they sign a convention or a loan with that country and their bilateral embassies in Cairo display nothing like the same resolve, since their national interests are at stake.
An “indispensable” partner
In addition to Europe’s business interests, the Egyptian regime plays the cards at its disposal quite shrewdly: “Since at least 2015,” as Leslie Piquemal, senior EU advocacy representative at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, explained during a visit to Brussels,
the authorities have managed to play a politico-diplomatic game which was sometimes rather subtle, sometimes less so, but was very effective when it came to strengthening Egypt’s role as a supposedly ‘indispensable’ partner in the EU’s strategy in the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin, as well as for border control and anti-terrorism. This creates issues in EU-Egypt relations such that neither the EU nor many of its Member States are willing to lose Egyptian cooperation by clashing with Egyptian authorities over questions of democracy, human rights, or the rule of law
From her privileged vantage point as an observer for Brussels, Leslie Piquemal sees on the European side
a combination which is neither necessarily efficient nor coherent: on the one hand a public diplomacy which, when it comes to controversial issues (human rights, status and influence of the Egyptian army, military support for Marshall Khalifa Haftar in Libya […] is generally timid or confined to formal channels with low media visibility, such as speeches at the UN Human Rights Council and which is sometimes non-existent or invisible with regard to alarming developments such as the repression of the September 2019 protests which resulted in 4,400 arrests and enforced disappearances.
At the same time,
EU diplomacy is clear enough, relatively visible, and coherent in the ‘positive’ aspects of its Egyptian relations (financial backing in socio-economic areas, infrastructures, cooperation on regional issues like Palestine, natural gas […]
The European Parliament to the rescue of the EU’s honour
To save Europe’s honour so to speak, we must look to the Parliament of Europe, unfortunately devoid of any real power, but which has produced in recent years four emergency resolutions on human rights in Egypt. The first was passed in 2016 and dealt with the Giulio Regeni affair, that Italian scholar whose atrocious death in Cairo could well have been caused by the Egyptian “services”. And quite recently, on last 22 October, 222 European and national MPs signed an open letter to President Sisi demanding the “release of political prisoners” and “an end to human rights violations.”
Much more in the spirit of “business as usual”, on the other hand, is the diplomatic work of the executive bodies of the EU, as illustrated by Josep Borrel’s recent visit to Cairo, on 3 September 2020. This Spanish official, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, commented his visit with an edifying tweet: My important visit to Cairo began with an in-depth exchange with President Al-Sisi. Egypt plays a key role in the region and we try our best to strengthen our relations and pursue our cooperation on issues of mutual interest. The EU and Egypt are reliable partners.” Who could doubt it?