UK launches Egypt trade mission despite human rights abuses

UK launches Egypt trade mission despite human rights abuses
British government says increased foreign investment will allow Egypt to progress as a democracy and bring social justice to its people.
3 min read
14 January, 2015
Sisi has been condemned for his crackdown on dissent [AFP]

The UK has moved to increase trade with and investment in Egypt with its largest trade mission to the country in over a decade, claiming that investment will allow Egypt to progress as a democracy and stabilise after years of upheaval.

Representatives from more than 40 British corporations accompanied the UK's Middle East and North Africa minister, Tobias Ellwood, to Cairo on Tuesday for the meetings.

Political unrest since the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak has badly damaged the Egyptian economy, particularly the tourism industry. Keen to attract foreign investment, Cairo is implementing some economic reforms.

However, the drive to increase trade comes after Britain and other countries have expressed concern with the Egyptian government's poor human rights record.

'Building a future'

Ellwood said the mission demonstrated London's commitment to international investment in Egypt. Such investment would help "the Egyptian people build a successful future for their country - an Egypt that is more secure, more democratic, and more inclusive. Key to this future is a dynamic economy that creates jobs and opportunities for all".

"Britain stands ready to support Egypt implement economic reforms both to help make a more attractive environment for business... as well as making sure that economic growth benefits all Egyptians and meets their real and pressing demands for social justice," Ellwood said.

"Together, these reforms will mean Egypt can build a strong, dynamic economy that creates jobs and lifts people out of poverty."

Not everyone agrees. Adam Hanieh, senior lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the UK's trade mission "can only be seen as a green light to the military government currently running Egypt".

"The UK's endorsment of these actions confirms a return to the 'business before human rights' relationship that characterised Britain and the Mubarak regime."


These reforms will mean Egypt can build a strong, dynamic economy that creates jobs and lifts people out of poverty.

- Tobias Ellwood, UK Middle East minister.

Under President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, there have been crackdowns on dissent throughout Egypt that have been widely condemned by human rights groups.

There have been thousands of arrests, and protests have been banned without prior approval. The Egyptian courts have also handed death sentences to hundreds of protesters in mass trials that last just minutes.

In December 2013, the Egyptian government arrested three foreign journalists working for Al Jazeera English, accusing them of "aiding terrorist organisations".

The attraction of stability

"The failure of Britiain and other countries to put their money where their mouth is on human rights damages the political credibility of the language of human rights, and by extension of liberal democracy," said John Chalcraft, of LSE's department of government.

But British businesses are attracted by Egypt's new-found relative stability, and by the fact that Egypt's economy has improved, with a five percent increase in growth over the past two quarters. 

The government's economic reforms ostensibly aim to increase transparency and reduce bureaucratic red tape. Cairo has also reduced fuel subsidies and plans to phase them out over the next five years, except for aid to the very poorest citizens.

Another innovation will be a $8.5bn "mega-project" to dig further waterways for the Suez Canal in order to increase revenues from the route connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

David Butter of Chatham House, the UK-based international affairs think tank, said there was "nothing particularly unusual" about Britain's corporate delegation, and that there had recently been trade missions to Cairo from several other countries.

"As long as there are no sanctions, there's no reason to be unduly concerned," he said. 

"Business people don't take a particular moral stance," he said. The reasons they would avoid investing in Egypt would be "more to do with the performance of the Egyptian economy" than with Egypt's human rights record, and whether people's grievances "might break out into something more serious".

For the time being, the UK and other countries are encouraging Egypt's economic reforms - and see no reason at all not to invest in the new rulers of Cairo.