by Rana Allam
In one on the most beautiful spots in the world, EU leaders attended a high-level meeting with the Arab League at the invitation of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to discuss migration, security, and terrorism. The meeting took place in the Sinai’s Sharm El Sheikh, a resort city on the Red Sea known as the City of Peace for its hosting of many international peace conferences. The City of Peace has become almost a ghost city now that, under the Sisi regime, the whole of the Sinai Peninsula resembles a military base.
The Sinai has seen atrocities beyond imagination. Isolated by the military since the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the people in the Sinai live in constant fear of air raids destroying their homes and livelihoods. In the north lies the city of Rafah where the inhabitants were forcibly evacuated. Thousands of families were thrown out of their homes, while the military, along with its Israeli allies, bombed the city into ashes and dust. Homes, schools, hospitals, roads, and farmland were destroyed, and whoever dared to stay was killed. The military campaigns in North Sinai have left up to 420,000 residents in four cities in urgent need of humanitarian aid, including medicine and food. Neither the Egyptian Red Cross nor any other relief organization is allowed in. This has all taken place amid a media blackout.
The Sisi regime has suspended water and electricity, banned the sale of commercial goods like gasoline, and cut telecommunications for days in a row in Northern Sinai. A state of emergency in North Sinai since 2014 has given the security forces the freedom to oppress, unlawfully detain, and kill with impunity. No reporters or researchers, foreign or domestic, are allowed in the Sinai, and whoever dares to write about the situation there is sent to military jail. A military court accused journalist and researcher Ismail Alexandrani of belonging to a terrorist organization and handed him a 10-year prison sentence for speaking up about the atrocities committed in the Sinai.
In the past, the Sinai, and especially Sharm el Sheikh, was a tourist heaven, and Egyptians flocked to its coasts, its diving spots, and its desert to enjoy their country. Now, Sinai residents cannot set foot outside the peninsula without security clearance, which they rarely ever get, and Egyptians go through checkpoints from hell to enter Sinai. Most have just stopped going there.
The EU leaders who flew to the Sinai for this meeting were indirectly providing legitimacy to the Sisi regime even as his security forces continue to commit grave human rights violations. Even worse, in addition to their discussions about migration and security, they were talking about more arms deals that would provide the Sisi regime with the tools of repression, which produce instability and hence more refugees to Europe.
Sisi’s policies are also a recipe for creating terrorists. Violent extremists feed on the grievances of vulnerable people. The more violent, repressive, and brutal the state is, the more of a recruitment base these extremists have. For an authoritarian military ruler like Sisi, more “terrorists” on the ground then gives him freer rein to pass more draconian laws and more repressive policies. For the EU, this should be a reason to stop supporting Sisi as a way to reduce migration, increase security, and decrease the ranks of terrorists. But they do not see it this way. They choose to believe that Egypt is stable as long as it continues to fill their pockets with the proceeds from lucrative arms deals.
Overall, the summit was not a success, except from Sisi’s point of view. Both the weak Arab League and the European Union suffer from divisions, the former because of infighting and the latter around the issue of refugees, and they didn’t leave the summit with any concrete results or plans of action. The EU came under harsh criticism for its support of Sisi, but Sisi himself basked in the glory from national news outlets publishing photos of him “leading the world.” News of future arms deals will come next.
Sisi’s outburst at the end of the summit meeting in which he rejected EU criticisms of his dismal human rights record, was not without merit. EU leaders have already turned a blind eye to that record, having accepted his invitation to discuss their security with him. They have already given him the power he needs. They need him, and he knows that now. They’ve lost the leverage to criticize him.
In his strongly worded closing remarks, Sisi told Europeans that they should “not lecture us on humanity,” that “Europeans and Arabs have a different sense of humanity, values, and ethics.” It is unclear where the difference lies, but it might be time to change the vocabulary of the demands directed at Sisi. What Egyptians are calling for is an end to the killing, torture, unfair trials, forced disappearances, unlawful detentions, trumped-up charges, and overall state terror. Maybe that would resonate better than saying “human rights.”