An impressive success on the short term that offers both short and long-term challenges. This predominantly is the assessment of the Cairo-based Western diplomatic corps of the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) that took place at the weekend in Sharm El-Sheikh.
In part, said some diplomats who spoke to Ahram Online, the EEDC showed that the world — including leading Western capitals — is willing, whatever concerns and reservations exist, to reach out to Egypt and help it move on. Or at the very least, as one European ambassador put it, “to make sure that Egypt will not fall.”
“This is the message that we wanted to make sure is being clearly put across to the Egyptian public. We wanted to say, contrary to media propaganda, that the West is not, and was not at any point, trying to falter the ruling authorities in Egypt and that to the contrary, we are trying to help,” the same ambassador said.
The level of official Western participation in the EEDC was not what some in official quarters in Cairo were hoping for. “It was good for the most part, but we had expected even better participation,” said a government official.
He argued that the level of economic commitment demonstrated by some of the “leading [Western] capitals” — an official euphemism for Washington —was below expectations, too.
Still, officially speaking, Cairo is content with the fact that leading figures of key multinationals were in Sharm El-Sheikh for the EEDC, “with a clear interest in making business deals.”
It is true, officials acknowledge, that a considerable (in the assessment of some, around 75 per cent) proportion of the pledges were made were essentially memoranda of understanding, which may or may not be followed through.
However, these officials and Cairo-based Western diplomats agree that the fact these pledges were made, with some coming from official Western quarters, even if they don’t shape up to the level of Arab Gulf pledges, is an indication of two things: the world thinks that Egypt is promising for investment; and the world thinks that things could go well, for these investments to materialise.
“This is why the success of the conference should not be taken for granted. Because, yes, the world wants to support Egypt, and yes, the world is aware that in the middle of a highly troubled region and on the immediate borders of Israel, it is important to keep Egypt intact. But it is also important for Egypt to want to help itself,” said another European ambassador.
“It might sound a bit cliché, but here we are with the common wisdom of, ‘Help us to help you,’” he stated.
According to almost identical statements of Cairo-based Western diplomats, their capitals are serious about lending an economic hand to Cairo, as demonstrated in and before the EEDC, with some generous arms deals and the resumption of segments of previously suspended aid and economic consultations.
The understanding is that sustainable economic growth is crucial for the stability of the country.
“Well, yes, there comes a point where the stability of the regime and the country is almost confused. But here we are with a regime that we know has, despite many concerns that we thought would be gone after the 25 January Revolution, significant public support,” said another European ambassador. He continued that despite “varied degrees of reservations” on progress on the political path following the ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi in summer 2013, the general consensus of these capitals is that it is important to help the current authorities in Cairo help themselves.
The essence of the message that was shared with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in talks he held with Western officials on the fringes of the EEDC was about the West is coming forward with political support and cautious economic engagement. But it will not rush any show of engagement before it sees some basic democracy requirements observed.
“To be honest, one of the things my minister was clear about sharing with President El-Sisi is the need for Egypt to cut through the complications that have blocked the election of a parliament until now,” said one Western diplomat. She added that the recent delay of parliamentary elections, even though upon judicial and constitutional considerations, is playing into the hands of those “back home” who still raise questions about the democratic commitments of the regime of El-Sisi.
Luckily, she added, the inclinations suggested by El-Sisi to some of his Western interlocutors seem to be transpiring. According to this diplomat, the acknowledgement by the police that one of its officers was responsible for the killing of leftist activist Shaymaa El-Sabbagh in January is not fooling anyone in the West if placed as a sign of major changes in the security creed of Egyptian policing. But it does show that at the end of the day the police cannot be fully exonerated of all wrong-doing.
“We know that there are many other cases and that this is only one, but still it is something,” she said.
The fact that this acknowledgment was made only a few days after the replacement of the interior minister — “even if he was not removed for this or similar incidents” — is “also something,” she stated.
“We want to encourage the president to do more. We feel he is sometimes worried about the reaction of his security apparatus and we want to encourage him by providing some economic help. And if we find that this strategy is working we shall be be doing more, for sure,” she added.
Improving security performance, accountability for security violations, and promoting public and political liberties were clearly recommendations that were put by the world community to Egypt during the recent regular convocation of the spring meetings of the UN Human Rights Council.
“So we are being clear, but not very loud, with our message if you wish,” said a fourth European ambassador.
But it takes more than human rights observation and parliamentary elections for the West to show more economic willingness towards Egypt, “although these are essential because they are indicators that stability is not something to worry about,” according to the economic counsellor in a leading Asian embassy in Cairo.
What also matters, she said, are matters related to the judiciary, because offering the world an overhauled investment law only goes so far when officials “fear [it] will be contested for compromising social justice requirements.”
What also matters is for the state to make sure that all measures are taken for the larger part of the population to feel they are gaining something from the new investment, and that it is not just about making the rich richer. “This is not just what we, as governments, think necessary for fear of socio-political hiccups; this is also something that big companies think is necessary,” she added.
“So, we are seriously talking about the creation of jobs in the open economic sphere and not just the military controlled economy, and we are talking about better services and clearer signs of development,” she explained.
Also on the list of post-EEDC expectations is management of the “Egyptian bureaucracy,” according to the economic counsellor in a smaller European embassy.
Having served in Egypt for over two years, he argued that what could kill some of the pledges that were made in Sharm El-Sheikh is not the hesitation of concerned capitals or companies, but rather the “way Egyptian bureaucracy is handling things.”
“This is not just our impression but also the impression of some leading members of the Egyptian business community,” he stated.
Overall, the West and its allies are expecting Egypt to keep moving forward, including in reassuming its regional role, according to the same diplomatic sources.
This, they said, is something Egypt is working hard to achieve, and is keen on.
“We have seen a great deal of Egyptian engagement in regional affairs, and of course this is about Egyptian strategic interests. But for us, it is also about the traditional role that Egypt assumes as a force for regional stability,” said a political advisor in a leading Western embassy.