By Eldar Mamedov
One of the central strategies the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East use to gain influence in the European Union (EU) is to promote themselves as bulwarks of stability, moderation, and tolerance. They pump up their credentials as defenders of religious minorities, particularly Christians, against the threat of political Islam. The efficacy and success of this strategy, however, appears to be limited to the conservative side of the European political specter, including the extreme right, while the left and the liberal center are much more skeptical of such narratives.
Egypt is a case in point. Wary of continued criticisms of its human rights record from such organizations as the European Parliament (EP), the regime of the President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dispatched Tawadros II—the spiritual authority of Egypt’s 15 million Christian Copts—to polish the country’s image in Brussels. Meeting with the leaders in the EP, Tawadros II duly repeated the well-rehearsed lines about Christians never having it so good in Egypt as under al-Sisi´s leadership. He blamed the occasional violence in the country on few foreign-originated subversives.
Barely a week after his visit, the EP adopted what is arguably its toughest resolution on Egypt to date. The motion, adopted by an overwhelming majority on October 24, condemned the arbitrary arrest of more than 4,300 people who were protesting against “systemic corruption, repression and austerity measures,” accompanied by demands of a;-Sisi’s resignation.
MEPs also demanded that the EU governments stop exporting to Egypt surveillance equipment and any other technologies that can facilitate repression. They, however, stopped short of calling for a full arms embargo, due to pressure of French MEPs from the President Macron’s En Marche party. Although part of the liberal Renew Europe (RE) group in the EP, on this issue, they joined forces with the right-wing of the chamber and, given their powerful position within the RE, succeeded in removing the reference to arms from the motion previously agreed by political groups, including their own. This maneuver reflects France’s bourgeoning arms exports to Egypt, and Paris’s overall close strategic alignment with al-Sisi.
What was novel in this resolution, and reportedly ruffled some feathers in the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, was the demand to conduct a profound overhaul of the EU’s relations with Egypt. Specifically, MEPs argued that the human rights situation in the country requires a “serious revision of the Commission’s budgetary support to Egypt.” Such support means direct transfers from the Commission to the Egyptian treasury, within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Those were, in theory, frozen after the Rabaa massacre by the Egyptian security forces in 2013. But even after that, as the Commission itself recognizes, it still represented 27 percent of the EU’s overall commitments to Egypt, ostensibly to promote good governance, among other objectives. Overall, the Commission earmarked up to 528 million euros to support Egypt in 2017-2020.
The question the MEPs are asking is whether continuing disbursing hundreds of millions of European taxpayers’ money to Egypt constitutes a sound policy. Recent protests, however small in scale, exposed the limits of the Egyptian model. It consists in marrying IMF-imposed, austerity-based neoliberal economic reforms with ferocious repression of political dissent. The Egyptian authorities try to portray the protestors as “terrorists” and “Islamists,” but this is deliberately misleading. The protests are ignited by the devastating social cost of al-Sisi’s reforms. Three years after the implementation of the IMF program, which provided a $12 billion loan to Egypt, 33 percent of Egyptians live under the poverty line, up from 28 percent in 2015. According to the World Bank, the number of the poor and vulnerable is near 60 percent, with inequality on the rise. All this comes accompanied by reports of a rampant corruption within the military, the mainstay of the president’s power.
In another country where IMF-driven austerity measures similarly led to an exponential increase of poverty—Argentina—voters had an opportunity to protest at the ballot box: they elected, on October 28, a center-left alternative to the neoliberal course. Egyptians, by contrast, are denied the right to change their government through elections. However, as long as al-Sisi refuses to correct the economic course and ease political repression, cracks in the edifice of his pretended stability will inevitably widen.
For the EU, to continue pouring money into a failing model is both morally wrong and politically shortsighted. It legitimizes repression, and makes mockery of the EU-proclaimed championship of global human rights, while at the same time damaging Europe’s own interests in the long run. Supporters of engaging al-Sisi argue that this is vital to safeguard stability in Egypt and to control migration flows to Europe. That would have been a legitimate argument were his government able to provide a real, sustainable stability. In reality, however, as the recent protests and their violent suppression show, al-Sisi’s policies are much more likely to exacerbate tensions in the Egyptian society, ultimately leading to violent explosion and, as a result, opening those floodgates of uncontrolled migration that the European leaders so fear.
The adopted resolution shows that at least parts of the European establishment are aware of the risks of uncritical support for the Egyptian regime. However, predictably, the EP’s hard right tried to back al-Sisi up. The European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), which counts among its members Francoist nostalgics from the Spanish Vox party, and the overtly Islamophobic, extreme right Identity and Democracy group (ID), spearheaded by the French Marine Le Pen and the Italian Matteo Salvini voted against the resolution, but were decisively outvoted by mainstream parties who refused to fall prey to the Islamist bogeyman.
This outcome puts the inadequacy of the intended Egyptian outreach to the EU in a spotlight. Tales of the new Christian temples in the country, however welcome per se, are not going to change the perception large swathes of the European political opinion have of al-Sisi’s regime. The criticisms of this regime are politically, not ecumenically-based, so the only way they can be effectively addressed is through tangible political reform. Otherwise, Cairo risks being stuck in its unsavory de-facto alliance with the European Islamophobic right. This undermines Egypt’s position as a self-proclaimed “important and influential” regional actor, and damages its reputation in Europe, the Muslim world, and, crucially, among many Egyptians themselves.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.