Europe's convenient relationship with Egypt

Europe's convenient relationship with Egypt
Comment: The EU's position towards Egypt sees a return to policies of the past, with support for dictators growing in the name of commercial interests, writes Alain Gresh
9 min read
12 Jul, 2016

If the European Union is in the midst of a crisis, it is in part because it's incapable of defining a foreign policy, and because it is willing to betray the values it claims to uphold. The EU's position towards Egypt since the coup on 3 July 2013 is evidence of a return to policies of the past, which saw support for dictators in the name of commercial interests and the fight against the "Islamist threat".

For decades, the EU turned a blind eye to the failings of regimes in power in the southern Mediterranean, and praised the economic policies of Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and Ben Ali's Tunisia, while claiming democracy was not on the political agenda. But the Arab uprisings gave way to a form of self-criticism.

In a well-known conference at the Institute for the Arab World in Paris (IMA) on 15 April 2011, Alain Juppé, France's then Minister of Foreign Affairs (who is today in the running for the presidency) stated that:

"We should recognise that for us, the Arab Spring came as a surprise. For too long, we believed that authoritarian regimes were the only pillars of resistance against extremism in the Arab world. For too long, we brandished the pretext of the Islamist threat, to justify a level of complacency towards governments flouting freedom and holding back the development of their countries." 

He added that, "we must change how we look at the Arab world. We, the French people thought we knew these societies inside out; they are societies with whom we have had long-standing strong bonds. But the Arab Spring caught us on the back foot and showed us that we were unaware of whole swathes of society. Today, we need the vision of entrepreneurs and NGO leaders. We need the vision of artists and students. And we also need the vision of bloggers, of those who are saying 'no' and the new actors who are emerging."

The Rafale jets and "democratic crowd-control"

In March and May 2011, the EU followed in a similar vein, and established two priorities: To further institutional reform, and fairer social and economic development. Financial support was allocated on a "more for more" basis: The more a country committed to political and institutional modernisation, the more it received significant investment. After the power grab on 3 July 2011 in Egypt, the EU stated its desire to support an "inclusive" political process, that's to say one that implicitly involved the participation of the country's main political force, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The armoured vehicles supplied by Renault are used in the repression of peaceful demonstrations, undermining the commitments set by the European Council

What is left today of these commitments? Not much, by the looks of a recent photo: In August 2015, Sisi's guest of honour, François Hollande, attended the inauguration of an expanded Suez canal. In the sky above them, the first Rafale jets delivered by Paris leave multicoloured trails in the sky. Two places down in the same row is the Sudanese President, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, by the International Criminal Court.

How can these good relations be justified with a regime that silenced any serious opposition? "We wish to ensure that Egypt can defend itself against terrorism", summarised François Hollande. It is hard to see how the Rafale jets or the frigates will allow Egypt to "fight against terrorism". One thing is sure, however - the armoured vehicles supplied by Renault are used in the repression of peaceful demonstrations, undermining the commitments set by the European Council that banned the delivery of arms that could be used for "internal repression".

It is hard to see how the Rafale jets or the frigates will allow Egypt to "fight against terrorism".

To justify their actions, the French authorities invoke their responsibility to ensure "democratic crowd-control", an argument that echoes that of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie in January 2011, when explaining export of tear gas to Ben Ali's Tunisian police.

Sisi, Egypt's "Doctor"

France is not the only European country to go down the path of putting economic interests above the principles it claims to defend. Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi was one of the first European leaders (along with François Hollande), to receive President Sisi. He hailed the "strategic partnership" between Italy and Egypt and in 2015, declared that Sisi was "a great leader" and that Egypt "would only be saved by the leadership of Sisi" with whom he is "proud to be friends".

It is true that a few weeks later, the Italian company ENI was to announce in August 2015 the discovery of the large Zohr gas field. With this in mind, the death of the student Giulio Regeni in Cairo seemed to have little sway over his choice, despite popular protests in Italy. What worth does the blood of a student have, over the huge profits Rome expects to derive from its discoveries and its companies?

What worth does the blood of a student have, over the huge profits Rome expects to derive from its [gas] discoveries and its companies?

Germany, for its part, had classed the power takeover on 3 July 2013 as a coup d'état. But the term was quickly forgotten when the German minister of the economy and Social Democrat Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, stated, "I think you have a very impressive president."

A few months later, on 3 June 2015, this "impressive president” was received by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while even the President of the Bundestag Norbert Lammert refused to meet him. The online daily Der Spiegel criticised "a betrayal of values and of interests (of Germany) for a contract worth a few billion", in reference to deal struck with Siemens (worth $8 billion).

The declarations of President Sisi during his visit claimed that God had created him "as a doctor to diagnose the country’s problems" and to solve them, which also led to much jibing from the international and German media.

In the name of "The war on terror"

It is evident then, that many European states - though not all, as demonstrated by the position of some Nordic countries, Belgium, Luxemburg and Holland - are ready to turn the page after the Arab Spring. Other reasons, in addition to economic interests, explain these European choices, particularly the return to an old, pre-2011 theory that the alternative in the region comes down to a military dictatorship or the arrival of the Islamists in power.

With the "war on terror" in full swing, in which Islamic State group (IS) presents a real danger, the discourse of the Egyptian authorities claiming they are faced with terrorism falls on favourable ears in Europe. The idea that there might exist a third, democratic path, has disappeared, despite the fact that all the region's recent history proves that it is the dictatorial regimes which fuel terrorist groups.

The idea that there might exist a third, democratic path, has disappeared

To this must be added a third explanation, particular to European countries: The fight against Muslim extremism. An Islamophobic discourse now dominates in the media as well as well as among political leaders. It comes as no surprise that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls' statement on the need to "fight the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood" in France, was made in February 2015, just a few days before the Rafale arms deal. 

The French Prime Minister has stated that the May 2017 presidential election will focus on the question of the values of identity, and as he calls on Europe to stand up to "Islamist fascism", he is giving his unconditional support to all those, the world over, who are fighting Islamism - from Egypt to Israel.

Resistance at the heart of the EU

As for the EU as an institution, it has given up on the "inclusive dialogue" that it had recommended with Egypt. Its observation missions led it to recognise the result of the May 2014 presidential election and the legislative election of December 2015, and to declare that, "the roadmap" established by the Egyptian authorities after 3 July 2013 had been respected - though even the Constitution remains, in substantial part, to be enacted.

The EU signed a programming contract for the period 2014-2016 and continues to allocate Egypt more than €100 million in financial assistance every year. Most of the programmes on socio-economic sectors have been implemented. In contrast, however, like the US, the EU has not released its budgetary support, on the grounds of technical or institutional criteria such as the macro-economic situation or the lack of budgetary transparency - not to mention corruption.

The EU as an institution has given up on the "inclusive dialogue" that it had recommended with Egypt

That said, the EU has not done away with these credits (€250 million in total), contenting itself with postponing their expiry date. Even the sub-committees - responsible for exchanging on all sectors of the EU-Egypt agreement - which had been suspended since the Arab revolutions, reopened in 2015.

In 2016, following a revision of the EU's Neighbourhood Policy, the EU and Egypt discussed new partnership priorities intended to replace the EU-Egypt action plan, which expired in December 2015. The sticking point of the negotiation is still the issue of civil society. The EU would like it to remain free and diverse while the Egyptian government insists on state control over all civil society organisations, especially those financed by external actors or foreign institutions.

Indeed, Cairo is carrying out a full offensive against local and foreign NGOs: Associations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights who were well-established under President Morsi, have had to close their offices, and many Egyptian associations have had their offices closed or confiscated.

This point is the final obstacle to holding an EU-Egypt association council, which has not happened since 2010. Egypt is hoping to gain a lot from it, in particular greater participation in the European Research and Development programme, Horizon 2020.

The EU would like [civil society] to remain free and diverse while the Egyptian government insists on state control over all civil society organisations

The European Council however remains divided over what stance to take regarding Egypt, which does not appear to be willing to make any concessions concerning the autonomy of its NGOs and their freedom to act. While Cyprus, Spain, France and Greece are all open to reopening the association agreement, to adopting new conclusions and in particular to a high level dialogue on the issue of the fight against terrorism, without there being any conditions, Germany, Holland, the UK, Slovenia and Scandinavian countries are more reserved, especially given the human rights situation.

Brexit, from this point of view, does not favour governments who argue that the EU cannot content itself with a purely "mercantile" policy and one that contradicts the democratic principles it claims to espouse.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.