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The baffled European in Egypt

Weaknesses at the heart of the Egyptian state, particularly on rights and rule of law, need to be addressed, not denied

Abdallah El-Sennawi , Saturday 7 May 2016
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With some bewilderment, a young European diplomat whose job requires him to closely monitor events and developments, summarised the position of EU states: “We want to help Egypt but we don’t know how.”

The perplexity of the question reveals the confusion of tracks and polices that make it difficult to give a straightforward answer.

There is near consensus that stability in Egypt is necessary for Europe’s stability, and that splintering the state would lead to the spread of terrorism to European capitals. Europe has had a bitter experience in its war against terrorist groups that have embedded and terrorised unlike any time since the end of World War II.

In other words, helping Egypt to guard and maintain its stability is a direct European security issue. This is a truth that cannot be refuted despite intermittent sharp European criticism.

The main sticking point for European countries is defining “stability” and what the priorities are. No one wants to destabilise Egypt now, because the ramifications will be severe on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Indulging in “conspiracy theories” blinds one from bare facts. Because of strategic and security interests, betting on Europe is gaining ground. However, this momentum is substantially undermined if the record on human rights and public freedoms is not improved.

In all cases, it is impossible to claim there is a unified European outlook regarding relations with Egypt. There are two conflicting tracks. The first extends a hand of unprecedented strategic and economic cooperation with Egypt, as seen in the visit by French President Francois Hollande.

This track gives priority to strategic interests over human rights, and is inclined towards “gentle criticism” or “friendly advice” to improve human rights records without quarreling over it.

France is motivated by its fear of embedded “terrorist groups” in its social structure, and is relying on an Egyptian role in a region where crises are exporting waves of violence to its capital. Hollande’s problem is that his support base is fickle, which once in a while requires him to justify his choices, although he is in desperate need for strong ties with the largest Arab country.

Italy has similar economic and strategic interests, and the explosive Libya issue plays a key role in joint interests. The murder of Gulio Regini has cast a long shadow in the short run. How this case was handled was disastrous and unconvincing, which caused Italy to take a different track, escalating pressure on human rights and public freedoms.

In the wake of the “foreign funds” case, European embassies closed ranks, US Secretary of State John Kerry made statements, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement that Egypt’s Foreign Ministry described as interference in a judicial matter.

It’s the usual. Western criticism varies in degree and Egyptian statements use the same language without addressing serious mistakes that have tarnished our image. For Europeans, it is normal to follow these cases and voice concern. Despite the choice of words, the European position is almost united when it comes to public freedoms.

Germany, like France, is focused on economic interests, but its political rhetoric on the human rights record is harsher. Britain’s rhetoric is more firm and its interests are more pivotal since it is Egypt’s top European trade partner. Holland, Austria and Scandinavian countries are more publicly vocal about rights violations, but Egypt is unwilling to understand their motives or take action to improve our destroyed image with tangible measures instead of propaganda.

Policies are judged by their credibility. No one in the world is willing to accept restrictions on civil society, because it is an undeniable fact of life. It is difficult to accept some arguments because of established modern standards, and some statements in defence are even more implicating. What we need is legal bases that are respected and provide civil society with its right to function, while guaranteeing that the state can monitor any financial excesses.

No one should ignore possible corruption in the operation of some organisations and it is important to hold them to account. Accountability, not revenge; questioning, not slandering. In the absence of rules, there are unconvincing measures and unpleasant setbacks. The state gains strength from its legal basis.

When there is greater consensus in society on the choices that hold it together, and the rules of the game guarantee this consensus, then there is a greater degree of “independent national decision.” International human rights standards deny any claims of sovereignty to justify violations; that is a world that is long gone and will never return.

The absence of any plans to reform state agencies undermines Egypt's ability to resist the storms of events or moral pressure. Its bad reputation at home and abroad is a dangerous indicator that should not be ignored or the opposite claimed. Talk of “evil people” who want to undermine the state needs serious revision, because this description is irrational.

Who are they exactly? What means are they using to undermine the state? Why would they think they can achieve their goal but for the fact that state agencies are very fragile and need reform, not a new round of denial.

Some European diplomats who watched the joint news conference between the French and Egyptian president wondered whether the latter meant specific European parties when he mentioned “evil forces." To make broad generalities is a serious mistake in understanding European dynamics.

One veteran European diplomat noted the vast disparity between European governments that want to build strategic partnerships with the Egyptian regime, and European media, human rights groups and think tanks that strongly campaign against the regime.

Reversing the image through serious reform in governance, commitment to a state of law, and respect for basic rights of citizenship are all requirements to bridge the gap in viewing Egypt, its role and its future.

When the Egyptian citizen is no longer bewildered by his future and his state embraces democracy, then the European will no longer be perplexed about conciliation.
 

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