President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on his first European trip, November 2014. Demotix/ Paolo Gargini. All rights reserved.The difficult debate about how to deal with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his military regime was given a literal illustration in early June 2015, when within a matter of days President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi first shook German chancellor Angela Merkel by the hand, and promptly cancelled his trip to South Africa in fear of his potential arrest.
The question of how to deal with a regime that has pushed Egypt back into the darkest times of military rule, arrested thousands of oppositionists and sentenced hundreds to life-long imprisonment or even death, one that has cut local NGOs off from international support and that bans academics from travelling to international conferences has become a constant debate in foreign ministries and directorate-generals in Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris, Washington and elsewhere.
“Egyptians are not ready for democracy” was already an oft-iterated dictum during the Mubarak era, and particularly since the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, many Egyptians agree that security is more important than democracy for the country at present. Hence, protests against the harsh crackdown against anybody who dares to criticize the government remain limited.
The number of political prisoners, according to the private Wiki Thawra platform, has bypassed 40,000 since Morsi got ousted. According to the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights, around 2,600 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces between June 2013 and December 2014, among them approx. 700 security personnel. Throughout the first five months of 2015, data of the Ministry of Interior reveal that 3,977 people got arrested for alleged Muslim Brotherhood membership.
How should western governments react to these shocking and unacceptable developments? Could more pressure help to change politics at the Nile? It would be nice, but supporters of democracy have no magic wand with which to shift the situation in their favour.
“Egypt is too important to be left alone”, is also often said, and indeed, maintaining vital relations with Egypt has much going for it. But so far, putting pressure on Egypt has not worked, and there is little sign that will change. When the US, longtime ally of Egypt and particularly of the military, decided to withhold its annual $1.3bn military support in October 2013 in reaction to the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the following massacres against many of his supporters, this led to no change whatsoever in the behaviour of Egypt’s government. It only accelerated the souring of Cairo’s relations with Washington, triggering a celebrated turn towards Moscow and Beijing. Both were eager to sign military agreements with Egypt. Meanwhile, when Norbert Lammert, president of the German parliament, refused to meet al-Sisi due to the deteriorating human rights in his country, he received much applause from human rights activists: but in Egypt itself, nothing changed.
Most western governments as a result have chosen to follow a ‘realist’ approach again in their relations with Egypt, which includes suspending any hope for successful democratization in the near future. This has furthermore opened the way for securing as many selfish interests as possible. It is better that Siemens builds a power plant in Egypt than Rosatom; better that British Petroleum drills for oil in the Nile delta than Sinopec; better that the armed forces buy French Rafale fighter jets than Suchoi aircrafts. That’s the cold but understandable logic in western capitals.
On top of everything, there is the trump card called security. Don’t we need, so the argument goes, a strong army to keep Egypt together, help push back the cruel insurgents in Yemen and Libya, and stop the smuggling and trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings in this sensitive part of the world? Jihadists groups have taken root not only in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and other collapsing countries, but even in Egypt itself, namely its remote and deprived areas, particularly the Sinai peninsula and the western desert along the Libyan border. Here, the Egyptian army has started its “war against terrorism” including air and land raids, resulting also in the loss of life of uninvolved civilians, and the destruction of houses in a 13.5km-long and 1,000m-broad buffer strip along the border to Gaza. According to the Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedom (EORF), nearly 700 people got killed and more than 1,400 arrested in the Sinai, with more than 1,000 Bedouin homes razed between 25 October 2014 and 25 January 2015.
All these are not particularly attractive developments from a democratic government’s perspective, but clearly, there is no easily accessible policy for western powers to help democracy succeed and prevent the further deterioration of Egypt’s economy and its security.
The European Union is currently revising its European Neighbourhood Policy, and though nothing has been decided, one idea will probably take root, namely the opportunity for countries around the Mediterranean to decide freely how much cooperation with the EU they wish. This would mean a further depoliticization of EU cooperation with its neighbors.
Yet, if no policy directly leads to an improvement in Egypt’s democratic rule of law and inclusive economic development, there is still the possibility (no, better say: moral obligation) to promote democracy by taking it seriously in their own countries. The restoration of autocratic rule in Egypt should lead to critical self-reflection about democratic shortcomings in western countries themselves. Every government in Europe, North America and wherever democracy is prominently written into their constitution could easily promote themselves as a model for democracy in Egypt: “We are convinced by the advantages of democracy, and look what you miss if you don’t buy into this.”
If the democracy refrain is not raised in Europe or North America, any promotion of it in Egypt and other autocratic countries will remain empty words. How can western diplomats, for instance, ask the Egyptian government not to extend internet surveillance of oppositionists and youth activists, if their governments back home have no words of condemnation for the apparent global surveillance activities of NSA, GCHQ, and other secret services?
How can western diplomats urge the Egyptian government to make their police forces respect prisoners’ rights and pursue de-escalating strategies in mass demonstrations, if unjust police behaviour in the United States is not curbed by proper juridical follow-up procedures? How can western diplomats urge the Egyptian army to stop the random destruction of homes and private property, if the EU now seriously entertains the idea of destroying the boats of alleged human smugglers in international or Libyan waters without any legal basis and with the nonchalant suspension of separate executive and legal powers?
How can western diplomats convince their Egyptian counterparts not to invest in coal and nuclear energy, but to promote alternative energies, when at the same time EU leaders are unable to agree on stricter CO2 emissions for cars in Brussels? How can western diplomats appeal to all Egyptians to become more moderate and include the whole range of political forces in the political process, if at the same time German politicians think about constitutionally banning the neo-fascist NPD?
And how can western diplomats call for the increased influence and rights of independent trade unions in Egypt, when their governments at home are trying to restrict their powers for the sake of economic growth and shareholder satisfaction?
As long as these internal policies in Europe and North America do not change, western governments strengthen al-Sisi’s regime, intentionally or unintentionally. It seems that the accusations of hypocrisy towards western actors, often heard in the Arab world, are not completely wrong when it comes to many policy areas inside the EU, Canada and the US.
Thorough improvements in these standards would help democrats in Egypt and elsewhere use western policies more convincingly to show the advantages of rule of law, protected privacy, and a socially rooted market economy.