North Africa, West Asia

Dancing with the devil: how the EU is complicit in Egypt’s brutal regime

Just weeks after staff from an Egyptian human rights group were arrested on terror charges, Macron rolled out the red carpet to welcome President Sisi to France.

Andrea Teti Vivienne Matthies-Boon
11 December 2020
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Elysee presidential Palace on 7 December 2020 in Paris, France
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Photo by Eliot Blondet/ABACAPRESS.COM / PA Images. All rights reserved

In February 2020, as he arrived back in Cairo to visit family, Patrick Zaky, a Masters student at Bologna University, was arrested by Egyptian authorities. Zaky, a researcher of gender rights for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), was detained on charges including “spreading false news” and “an incitement to protest”. His lawyer, Wael Ghally, claimed he was “beaten and tortured”. Ten months on, he is still being held in prison, awaiting his pre-trial hearing.

Then, after a meeting with 13 European ambassadors and diplomats on the state of human rights in Egypt, three more of EIPR’s staff were arrested between 15 and 19 November. EIPR’s administrative manager, Mohamed Basheer, its executive director, Gasser Abdel Razek, and its criminal justice director, Karim Ennarah, were accused of “terrorism” and “spreading false news”.

Their treatment appears to be punitive. They were placed in solitary confinement in Tora Liman maximum security prison, with no contact with the outside world. Basheer was also denied contact with his lawyers: his detention was renewed in secret, three days before the scheduled hearing. Abdel Razek was forcibly shaven, left without heating or winter clothes, and forced to sleep on a cold metal plank without a blanket. Each was added to Case 855/2020, which includes many prominent human rights defenders, journalists and academics such as Mohamed Al Baqer, Mahinour Al Masry, Islam Mohamed, Solafa Magdy and Hazem Hosny.

On 1 December, EIPR assets were frozen and courts refused to even hear evidence against its classification as a “terrorist” organisation.

After an international outcry – with politicians, diplomats and even celebrities calling for the release of EIPR staff – Egyptian authorities suddenly released Abdel Razek, Ennarah and Basheer on the evening of 3 December. Yet Zaky, like many others charged in Case 855/2020, remains in prison, and his detention was earlier this month reportedly renewed for another 45 days by a court in Cairo. The conditions of the hearing were exceptionally brutal even by Egyptian standards: around 700 people attended one court hearing that covered 50 cases. They were reportedly forced to wait for 12 hours without access to food, water or toilet facilities – including very young children born in custody.

Egyptians frequently complain that if they so much as breathe in the wrong direction they risk detention and disappearance into Egypt’s nightmarish judicial system

Meanwhile, despite their release, the other EIPR staff have not had their charges dropped and their personal assets remain frozen. It is worth noting that Abdel Razek, Ennarah and Basheer were released directly from Tora prison – an unusual procedure, as prisoners are normally first transferred to a police station from where they are released. This suggests that the release could have been a direct intervention from the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a few days before his visit to Paris on 7 December to “strengthen cooperation” with French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Many believe their release was a cosmetic move undermining the international solidarity campaign, and offering France a fig leaf for its meeting, while again chastising the few European governments who even timidly spoke publicly about human rights, as Sisi did during his joint press conference with Macron. The French president in turn facilitated what Sisi called “civilisation-building” , by refusing to attach human rights conditions to French arms deals with Egypt – effectively giving Sisi a carte blanche for state terror.

Sadly, neither the arrest of EIPR staff nor France’s cooperation with Egypt is unexpected. These are simply the latest developments in what has been a consistent pattern over the past six years: Sisi’s repressive regime has been strengthened through ‘pragmatic’ European support and a permissive approach to Egypt’s terrible record of human rights violations.

Since his 2013 rise to power, Sisi has shrunk Egypt’s political and civil space, to the extent that Egyptians frequently complain that if they so much as breathe in the wrong direction they risk detention and disappearance into Egypt’s nightmarish judicial system in which mass trials, trumped-up charges and corruption are the norm.

Sisi has also expanded government’s control over the judiciary and the political process: “harming social unity of peace”, “disturbing public order”, and “impeding public authorities” are all now legally defined as terrorism. His use of these instruments has been chilling. The regime carried out mass murders, with 3,185 reportedly killed by security forces since July 2013, including at least 900 who died in the Rabaa massacre in August 2013. It intensified the use of preliminary death sentences – levied against 2,433 people, 1,884 of which through mass trials, including 11 children. And at least 766 have died in detention through torture, neglect, or direct killing. These are the known numbers – actual figures are likely far worse. What is certain is that Sisi’s regime is so terrified of dissent, it is squeezing the life out of Egyptians.

EU governments merely issued expressions of ‘deep concern’ – and even then, only after a significant international campaign

Egypt’s egregious human rights violations constitute a very public slap in the face to the EU. The latest stark, mafia-style warning came in reaction to a mere meeting on human rights with European government figures, and on the very same day that the EU published its ‘Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024’. Yet the bloc’s reaction betrays the dead end of its current strategy: its governments merely issued expressions of ‘deep concern’ – and even then, only after a significant international campaign. Since then European delegations have continued as normal: the Danish ambassador enjoyed a plate of koshari with Egypt’s state media, the Norwegian ambassador celebrated new green business relations, and the UK signed its strategic economic partnership with Egypt. The EU itself held a meeting on strengthening relations with countries including Egypt – despite Sisi’s regime’s human rights abuses having been described as worse than those of former President Mubarak.

How has it come to this?

Taking advantage of Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ and of terrorist attacks, Sisi convinced Brussels and key member states that his strength was as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism and a migrant flood. Neither of these things are true: there is little sign of violent radicalisation in Egypt, and the country is not a major migration route. In fact, evidence shows that systematic repression significantly increases the chances of radicalisation and that impoverishment and repression feed the desire to emigrate. Sisi has destabilised Egypt, making it more precarious, and effectively transforming it into a “sinkhole of insecurity”.

Yet wanting to appear tough domestically on security and migration, and motivated by economic interests in loans, investments, and expanding arms sales, European leaders have willingly participated in Sisi’s deadly snare. These choices have been presented in public as a sacrifice of the EU’s fundamental values, dictated by the need for stability and security. But while such choices may be in the commercial interest of European businesses, they are not in the national interest. Indeed, by contributing to impoverishment and repression, European governments are increasing insecurity, acting directly against the national interest.

European governments should recognise the flaws in their current strategy. There are many ways in which they could take a stand against Sisi, from summoning Egypt’s ambassadors or withdrawing their own from Cairo to establishing a human rights council at the forthcoming 46th Human Rights Council in Geneva, or suspending ‘counter-terrorism’ engagements. They could also speak out publicly against the regime or attach and implement human rights conditions to economic relations with Egypt – arms trading included. The EU could apply recently adopted ‘Magnitsky sanctions’ to ban travel and freeze the European assets of Sisi, his interior minister, and the head of Tora prison.

Earlier this week Sisi was welcomed to France with a cavalry parade through Paris. But now it is time to roll back the red carpet and learn.

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