North Africa, West Asia

Europe in Egypt: the white man’s burden

The EU will continue to provide material and political support to the Egyptian regime, as long as it serves its goals.

Maged Mandour
11 March 2019
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) speaks during a press conference with European Union Council President Donald Tusk at the end of the European Union (EU) and League of Arab States (LAS) summit.
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Picture by: Oliver Weiken/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On the 23rd of February, the Egyptian Red sea city of Sharm El Sheikh hosted the first European- Arab League summit. The two-day summit covered topics like, security, counter-terrorism, and socio economic cooperation. It took place a mere three days, after Egypt carried out a mass execution of 9 men, on the 20th of February, convicted of the murder of the Attorney General, Hesham Barakat, in a bomb attack on the 29th of June 2015. The integrity of the convictions had come under scrutiny, after allegations were made by the defendants that their confessions were obtained under torture.

In spite of criticism and calls by human right groups, the Egyptian government carried out the executions. President Sissi, stating that the use of executions was acceptable in the Middle East due to “cultural” reasons, defended the mass execution of the nine men.

The summit and the executions that preceded it, is illustrative of current European policy towards the Egyptian regime, where concerns related to curbing the refugee flow, and counter-terrorism trump human rights violations and repression of the local population. This policy has manifested itself in increased levels of security and surveillance cooperation, arms sales to the Egyptian navy to curb the migrant flow, and the launch of formal talks for an increased Egyptian role in combating the refugee flow in exchange for economic incentives.

Bolstering Cairo`s role in reducing the flow of refugees has been an area of focus for European leaders. In a summit in the Austrian city of Salzburg, concluded on the 18th of September 2018, the European leaders backed the launch of formal talks with Egypt, on how it can help curb the refugee flow in exchange for economic benefits and investments by European companies. The details of the talks have not been made public, however, the options ranged from bolstering Egypt`s ability to combat departure from its shores, to possibly taking the refugees that have been rescued at sea, in exchange for increased investments.

These talks were preceded with large arms sales to the Egyptian navy, increasing its ability to patrol the Mediterranean, and possibly acting to deter and control the flow of African refugees departing from the Libyan coast, as well as, enhancing its ability to conduct counter-terrorism operations. This includes large arms deals from France, which includes the sale of four Gowind 2,500-ton corvettes—compact 335-foot escort and patrol vessels. These vessels are intended for the interception of non-state actors, ideal for intercepting smugglers or counter- terrorism operations.

France has also launched two military manoeuvres, Ramses 2016 and Cleopatra 2016, in March and July 2016, with the Egyptian navy, the aim of the exercise was to share expertise with the Egyptian navy. The focus of the manoeuvres revolved around counter-terrorism tactics. In addition to this, France has also supplied the Egyptian military with a surveillance satellite, in a deal agreed on the 18th of April 2015, worth 1.2 Billion EUR.

European arms sales to the Egyptian navy are not restricted to France. It also includes the sale of four German Type 209, with the contract of the first two signed in 2011, and the second two in 2014, in a deal estimated to be worth close to 1.5 Billion EUR, further increasing the ability of the Egyptian navy to patrol the Mediterranean.

These arms sales are also accompanied by increased cooperation in terms of the intelligence and information sharing. The most prominent example is the launch of official talks with Egypt, and seven other countries in the Middle East for increased security cooperation and intelligence sharing, as part of a package unveiled by the European Commission in October 2017. The negotiations have been approved by both, the European Council and the European Parliament.

The proposed deal could allow sharing of information pertaining to Religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and trade union membership. This is also combined with the sale of “dual” use surveillance technology by a myriad of European firms, and it was confirmed by two separate reports. The first published in February 2016, by Privacy International, which traces the sale of these technologies by German and Italian firms, and a second report issued by a group of French and Egyptian NGOs, in June 2018 that details the sale of French surveillance technology and small arms weaponry and ammunition. These technologies can be used as a tool for mass repression of dissent.

This increased security cooperation is also accompanied by sizeable European investments in the Egyptian economy. The most notable example is Eni, the Italian energy company, owned by the Italian government and that has 70% of its investments in the country, totalling 13 Billion EUR, as well as, Siemens the global German conglomerate that signed an 8 billion EUR deal to supply power stations to the country. Total French investments also reached 4 billion EUR, originating from 160 companies.

The increased level of security cooperation and the focus on counter terrorism and control of the refugee flow allows the regime significant leeway in terms of mass repression of the local population, and human right abuses with little fear of a possible international backlash.

For example, the continued sale of surveillance technology that the regime uses for mass repression, in-spite of an appeal by the European Parliament to ban these sales is a good indicator of European Security Policy priorities. Even in cases where the victims of the Egyptian repression are European, like the case of Giulio Regeni, the Italian Cambridge PhD student that is thought to have been abducted, tortured, and murdered by the Egyptian security forces, the regime, has, until now, escaped significant European pressure over the case.

The use of the refugee card, as a way to pressure European leaders is also made apparent in the speech given by Sissi in the Munich security conference, held on the 16th of February 2019. In his speech he asked for “understanding” for Egypt`s situation, which he stated is hosting five million refugees, due to the collapse of neighbouring states, a number that is contradicted by the UNHCR which puts the numbers at around 250,000.

Thus, the regime can count on continued European support, in terms of arms and investments, as long as it acts to patrol the Mediterranean, and to stem the refugee flow, regardless of its abysmal human rights record and mass repression of dissent. In effect, the European Union will continue to provide material and political support to the regime, as long as it serves to the goals of European security policy in the Mediterranean.

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