On the eve of an expected European Union meeting at the Brussels headquarters by senior diplomats, Cairo sent a series of messages that should help reassure its usually supportive neighbours north of the Mediterranean that there is no going back on democracy in Egypt – despite the bloodshed that has marred the last few days in the country.
The key message, according to some European diplomats in Cairo, is the one coming from the strongest man in the Egyptian government: General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the minister of defence and commander of the armed forces. Addressing a gathering of Central Command brass on Sunday, El-Sisi said some of the key things that the West would want to hear - even if not in the exact words some Western capitals would have hoped for.
“I am honoured to have been there to execute the will of the people and to make sure that nobody oppresses Egyptians; to me this is the biggest honour of all; it is a bigger honour than ruling Egypt – I say it again, it is a bigger honour than ruling Egypt”.
El-Sisi, considered by many the effective decision-maker in the country, asserted that Egypt is not going to fall under “military rule” and that the democratic process would be picked up “according to the plan of action” that was announced on 3 July upon the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, in the wake of nation-wide massive anti-Morsi demonstrations demanding early presidential elections.
For some Cairo-based European diplomats, this is good news – but it is not enough to end a state of apprehension that took over European Union and some European capitals towards the current Egyptian government following the bloody dispersal of two sit-ins of Morsi supporters in Cairo and Giza on 14 August.
Images of endless body bags coming out of the bloody dispersal could not have been qualified as anything but a carnage which came after two other bloody incidents in July where over 150 supporters of Morsi were killed.
Currently there is still no count of the final death toll of the dispersal of the sit-ins and subsequent violence but most independent assessments suggest that when the counting is done the death toll would be well over 1,000 - some say in the neighbourhood of 1,500 – and the number of injured would be put around 5,000.
“These are not small numbers; we need to see a truce and a political process,” said one of the Cairo-based European diplomats who has spoken with Ahram Online.
Speaking ahead of the news that announced the killing on Sunday of close to 40 suspected Muslim Brotherhood members during their transfer to prison, in an incident that the ministry of interior said was an attempted escape, the diplomat suggested that the lowering of the level of violence could help contain the show of European Union dismay in the Monday meeting at Brussels. He added that the reassuring messages that have been made during the last two days by “all the institutions in Egypt” would help reduce the level of EU apprehension about the “future of democracy in Egypt”.
Throughout the last two days, several state officials have been sending messages similar to the ones offered by El-Sisi. Mostafa Hegazy, an adviser to the interim president on strategic affairs and Nabil Fahmy, minister of foreign affairs, gave two consecutive press conferences sending three message to world opinion: the international media shows bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood camp; there is no giving up on democracy in Egypt; the Muslim Brotherhood would have to go through a tough “legal” process to pay for their “terror attacks on the state.”
A few other messages sent to Europe by government officials – either to Brussels or to key and influential EU capitals – have been helpful, officials told Ahram Online. Top amongst these is a “candid” talk that Saudi foreign minister had with the French president – who along with the UK prime minister took Egypt to a private discussion at the UN Security Council last week – where “words were not minced” about the need to take into consideration the support Riyadh and other key oil Gulf states are giving to the new political reality in Egypt.
Still, in Brussels Monday, informed sources say, the EU would “reflect” concern on the developments in Egypt but would not go too far. There are no expectations that he partnership agreement, signed between Egypt and the EU in 2001, following years of hard negotiations, would be suspended despite the outright conditionality stipulated in the text of the agreement on the direct correlative relation between aid and democracy – something that was reiterated in the ‘more for more’ policy adopted by the EU in 2010.
An aid package of a few billion euros could be suspended pending the resumption of the democratic process as part of what EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton had said would be the “revision of relations” with Egypt and the adoption of “appropriate measures” in view of the violence that peaked on Wednesday.
Several European capitals have already taken independently limited measures to show dismay at the volume of violence. These included suspension of aid packages and programmes and suspension of flights and tourism to Egypt.
However, as concerned government officials say, it should not be long before things start to ease. “Listen, all that the West would want of Egypt is to be stable; they think that this stability would inevitably pick up across the southern Mediterranean and help reduce the wave of unwanted migration,” said an informed government official. He added that the Europeans are not fighting to get Morsi back into the presidential palace as some Egyptian media has been suggesting. “It is a silly argument to make,” he said.
“I am not undermining the fact that the rule of Morsi was convenient to the West in some aspects related to the containment of Hamas in the interests of Israel but I am saying that if Egypt reassured Europe it is currently in a process of correcting the democratic path that was supposedly initiated with the 25 January revolution rather than reversing course to a Hosni Mubarak style of autocracy –give or take – the Europeans would have to re-engage with us; it is in their interest,” the same government official.
In the last few years of the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was forced to step down by the 2011 revolution, the European Union issued several statements and held several meetings to show concern over human rights and democracy in Egypt.
In 2010 a meeting held by the EU ambassadors to Egypt on the infamous killing of Khaled Said at the hands of police officers in Alexandria drew considerable attention to European concern over deteriorated human rights standards.
Another Egyptian official commented “when the demonstrations of 25 January started it took the EU a while before it decided to side with the people against the rule of Mubarak.”
“Behind his back, the Europeans called Mubarak an aging dictator but in his face they were endlessly praising his ‘wisdom’ to appeal to his inflated ego; this is what it boils down to – they would do business with whomever is in power providing that he does not go far in embarrassing them; the pictures of the body bags and of men having their heads blown off with police bullets are an avoidable embarrassment.”