President Mohamed Morsi today held an extended meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at his office in Cairo. The meeting, by the assessment of Egyptian officials who spoke to Ahram Online, was not smooth-going.
“It was not exactly tough either. But there were vocal concerns that [Ashton] raised with regards to human rights and the political feud in Egypt,” said one presidential official on condition of anonymity.
European officials remain keen, to judge by statements made by Cairo-based European diplomats, “to reach out to Egypt.” “We have an interest that Egypt does not fall; we want to help,” said one European diplomat, adding that European governments are not going as far as they might like with economic assistance to Egypt due to pressure from European civil society organisations and European parliamentarians.
European leaders pressured
Today’s visit by Ashton was supposed to take place last month but was delayed due to hard pressure from the European Parliament, which launched a harsh attack against European governments for turning a blind eye to rights violations they said are being committed by the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Morsi. With particular reference to freedom of opinion and protections of minorities, especially Copts and women, European parliamentarians have been urging strong action.
The debate of late March in the European Parliament came in the wake of similar debates in several European parliaments. Earlier last month the Dutch foreign minister was given a rough ride by legislators for adopting what was deemed a compromising stance on violations committed by the Egyptian regime.
The foreign minister told his critics that reaching out to the Egyptian regime is something strongly encouraged by both the US and Israel, due to the flexibility shown by Cairo on matters of regional concern.
It is this trade off that Ashton, in her talks today, appeared keen to keep in good balance.
“She expressed appreciation of the regional role undertaken by Cairo under President Morsi, with reference to the successful Egyptian mediation to stop the conflict between Hamas and Israel [in Gaza last year], but insisted that this regional role is not sufficient in and of itself amid European concerns. She was firm, but not harsh,” said the presidential official.
By the same source's assessment, the issues Ashton brought up with Morsi today in Cairo are not very different, if at all, from those brought up by US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Cairo early March.
Government officials have recently been speaking of what some of them qualify as "repeated reminders from the West to Morsi" to be more cautious in the management of confrontation with the political opposition, the media and civil society, to avoid prompting criticism by parliaments and rights groups.
This was thrown into special relief last week with international attention on the interrogation by the public prosecutor with TV satirist Bassem Youssef.
According to one concerned official, “We received endless complaints, but we are not getting reprimands as, say, was the case during the rule of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak when we received a direct reprimand with regards to the case of Ayman Nour,” an opposition figure who was imprisoned by the Mubarak regime.
The same officials add that all remarks are carefully phrased — more so on the American than the European side — in view of "Western expectations" of the Morsi regime on the foreign policy front.
Egypt's regional card
A top area of interest for the West is the Palestinian-Israeli front. According to Cairo-based Western diplomats, Washington and other Western capitals are hoping to see the Morsi regime continue to “encourage Hamas” to refrain from any action that might hamper US efforts to get the Middle East peace process, long stalled, back on track.
“Let us be realistic here. Nobody is really thinking that something major is going to come out of this, even in view of the determination of US President [Barack] Obama to intervene personally. But it is worth giving it a try, in view of the fact that we have no other options. And we would certainly appreciate it if President Morsi could keep Hamas away from sabotaging the initial efforts. We actually think he could,” said an official of the Palestinian Authority ahead of Kerry's visit to the region.
Kerry, according to American and UN sources, is still at the exploratory phase. “He is still listening to the parties,” said one American source from Washington.
In the assessment of the Morsi regime, the better the chances for peace talks resuming (diplomats and officials are no longer using the term "peace process"), the better the chances for Morsi to gain enough respite from international pressure to “fix the situation” internally.
This hope does not seem exaggerated, with Muslim Brotherhood foreign policy circles saying that it is not at all easy for Kerry —or anyone — to restart peace talks, especially with the current right-wing Israeli government.
Meanwhile, Cairo is offering other foreign policy help in the hope of sparing itself pressure on internal matters.
Last week in Paris, Foreign Minsiter Mohamed Kamel Amr reassured French president that Egypt will use its weight, through Al-Azhar and other Islamic channels, not excluding those of the Muslim Brotherhood, to pressure Islamist militant groups in Mali to refrain from a new attempt to topple the regime.
Attempts at toppling the regime last year prompted the Malian authorities to request French military help to confront the rebels.
On another front, Cairo is stepping up efforts to promote the establishment of a solid, relatively united Syrian opposition body that could reach a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis. This is particularly to the liking of the Americans who, according to Syrian opposition figures, are more convinced by the day that a negotiated peace is better than military action.
Meanwhile, Egyptian officials acknowledge that offering foreign policy help cannot substitute for democratic transition.
In the words of one official, “While keeping an eye on what we call the ‘red lines’ of Western interests, such as the security of the borders with Israel, a priority for the West, especially Washington, it is also important for the West to see the ruling regime reaching reconciliation with [opposition] political forces as with economic power groups, and to observe citizenship rights and freedoms, especially for minorities”.
The same official added that in return for observing the West's red lines, Washington would try its best to give a push to a loan that Cairo is desperately trying to get from the International Monetary Fund.
Nonetheless, the same official suggested: “If keeping within the red lines was sufficient, the West would have supported [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak in face of the January 25 Revolution."