Europe's unfortunate return to pragmatism over Egypt

Europe's unfortunate return to pragmatism over Egypt
7 min read
28 Mar, 2017
Comment: Merkel's visit was just the latest to endorse the police state built by Sisi in exchange for help on curbing migration to Europe, writes Alaa Bayoumi
Merkel and other European politicians have done little to defend human rights in Egypt [Getty]

A visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Egypt in early March was the latest example of how major European countries have once again relapsed to a decades-old foreign policy that favours pragmatism and hard interests over values and democracy when dealing with the most populous Arab nation.

In visiting, Merkel became the latest European leader to be hosted by the powers behind the July 2013 military coup that toppled Egypt's first democratically elected president.

That coup ended the country's brief experience with democracy, which began with the January 2011 revolution - during which hundreds of ordinary Egyptians sacrificed their lives for democracy and freedom.

The coup was led by the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has increasingly been courted by European leaders since early 2015. Sisi was defence minister when the coup took place, supervising a deadly crackdown on opposition that left hundreds dead, and rising to power through a pseudo-election in mid-2014.

Paving the way for Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited Egypt in 2014, enjoying warm political and economic relations with Sisi until the brutal torture and killing of an Italian graduate student in Egypt in early 2016.

French president Francois Hollande visited Egypt twice, signing major arms deals with the Sisi regime in 2015. 

Still, Merkel's visit had its own weight and political significance, considering Germany's role as the major economic power and one of the front lines in Western Liberalism's war against rising populism.

Her visit will certainly contribute to the stability and prestige of the Sisi regime both domestically and abroad. The German Chancellor also offered Egypt half a billion dollars in economic aid, over two years, which should help the Egyptian authorities navigate a painful economic reform programme that has squeezed Egypt's poor and middle class.

Except for briefly calling on Egypt's government to ease restrictions imposed on the work of local and international NGOs, Merkel abstained from speaking to her Egyptian hosts on the need for democratic transition, or to stop the oppressive crackdown on opposition, dissent, civic life and independent media.

Since the military coup, hundreds of Egyptians have been killed by security forces, tens of thousands have been unfairly jailed, and media and political freedoms have been curtailed to levels unseen even under the regime of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak - who was overthrown by the 2011 revolution.

What Merkel really got from her visit was Egypt's cooperation on curtailing illegal immigration across the Mediterranean

Moreover, Merkel praised Egypt for its important role in the region, and emphasised Germany's interest in further economic cooperation.

In return, what Merkel really got from her visit was Egypt's cooperation on curtailing illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. Ahead of crucial parliament elections in Germany this September, Merkel, who is facing rising domestic opposition from anti-immigration groups, needed to appear active in finding foreign policy solutions to stemming the flow of refugees to Europe.

Merkel needed Egypt's help in securing its borders with Libya and its long shores of the Mediterranean, speeding up the process of accepting Egyptians rejected asylum in Germany, and hopefully improving treatment of refugees into the bargain.

In return, Merkel was willing to offer the Egyptian regime vital economic aid and political support.

Special coverage: Read more about Egypt's war
on democracy and civic life

Merkel's pragmatic approach, motivated mainly by domestic interests, is hardly an exception among major European nations when dealing with Egypt since the 2013 military coup.

Over the past four years, European powers, including Germany, the UK, France and Italy, have limited their support for democracy in Egypt to mere words - as their actions favoured hard economic, military and geopolitical interests. 

Since the July 2013 coup and after a brief period of criticism, major European powers have opened their doors to the Sisi regime. The former field marshal visited Italy, France, Germany and Britain - among other European nations - between November 2014 and October 2015.

Such visits were crucial in bringing Sisi out of his international isolation after his deadly crackdown on opposition, and often coincided with signing lucrative economic and arms deals with firms from the nations he toured.

Egypt signed a $5.6 billion deal to important 24 Rafale jets from France, while BP signed a $12 billion deal for gas exploration in Egypt's Northern Delta. The German technology giant Siemens was awarded a $9 billion deal to build several power plants in the country, and the Italian oil giant Eni discovered a supergiant gas field in Egypt's Mediterranean waters.

Such deals may have been made possible only by generous Gulf aid to Egypt after the coup. 

Sisi, who was the head of military intelligence when the January revolution against Mubarak took place, may have understood the power of such lucrative deals in opening the doors of foreign powers to his regime. However, what Sisi enjoyed and Europe suffered was more than economic pressure.

Many reasons may have contributed to Europe's return to the same old pragmatism on Egypt. 

First, the Egyptian revolution was defeated after the revolutionaries became divided and failed to predict and confront the counter-revolution led by the country's military itself - which has since kept a tight grip over the country's state institutions.

Special coverage: The ultimate Arab mixtape

Many foreign countries, not just European, can fairly argue that, considering Egypt's size and role in the Middle East and the historical role of its military in ruling the nation, they have no choice but to deal with the new military rulers. 

Second, the new regime in Egypt enjoys not just domestic support, it also enjoys the support of some powerful neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which channelled billions of US dollars to Egypt in the years following the coup to help stabilise the new regime.

They also used their economic clout to pressure other countries to accept the coup. In 2014, the government of then British Prime Minister David Cameron launched an investigation into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood group, which ruled Egypt after the revolution, and its relations with "terrorism".

It was later revealed that Cameron initiated the investigation under pressure from Gulf countries. 

Third, recent regional and international developments, such as the defeat of the revolutions, the rise of the Islamic State group, and the massive wave of refugees that hit Europe helped increase the clout of regional traditional powers such as Egypt and the emphasis on the need for security and stability.

Western countries are increasingly facing their own domestic democratic challenges after the recent surge of populism in the US and Europe

The anti-violent sentiment of many of the revolutionaries in the early months of the Arab Spring may have convinced reluctant foreign powers to support change, but the bloody years that followed - even if they were partly engineered by the same old oppressive regimes and their domestic and foreign allies - had the opposite effect. 

Fourth, Western countries are increasingly facing their own domestic democratic challenges after the recent surge of populism in the US and Europe. Populist political groups are often anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner and anti-Islam.

They also anti-democratic and supportive of authoritarian foreign regimes and their heavy-handed security approaches towards Muslim political religious groups, which are seen by European populists as an arch-enemy. In such a context, European governments have been feeling the pressure to look tougher on the foreign policy front.

Merkel's recent reaching out to Sisi's authoritarian regime for help stemming the flow of refugees is just one example.

In summary, Europe's resurrected pragmatism in dealing with new Arab autocrats, such as Egypt's Sisi, is the result of a complex set of factors that are not easy to change in the short term.

Therefore, calls by Egyptian youth, who look up to Europe for help safeguarding political change or standing up to oppressive counter-revolutionary regimes, will not be answered anytime soon.

Egyptian democrats should expect only words from Europe. This is unless the Egyptian masses once again surprise the world the way they did in January 2011. 

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian journalist and the author of two books studying US foreign policy in the Middle East. He also writes on democratic transition in the Arab world.

Follow him on Twitter: @Alaabayoumi

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.