Genuine irreversible reform in Egypt will take time: UK minister

Amer Sultan in London, Tuesday 27 Dec 2011

Taken by surprise by the Arab Spring, British Minister Alistair Burt tells Ahram Online how opinions on the Middle East are being revised in the new political reality

Alistair Burt (Photo: AFP)

Christmas and New Year celebrations provide a rare opportunity for Alistair Burt to take a deep breath and enjoy family life. Burt, who oversees UK involvement in the Middle East as part of his role as parliamentary under secretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is dealing with one of the hottest issues currently facing his country’s foreign policy: the popular uprisings sweeping through the Arab world. For Burt, “The Arab Spring is more than a series of discrete events – it is an ongoing process in which people across the region have made clear that they want dignity and accountability from their governments.” 

“It is hard to say when or how it will end and the situation is different in each country,” says Burt. Last March the UK government admitted that it and other international powers had been wrong to support authoritative and non-democratic governments in the region for the sake of their own interests. Now London looks at the revolutions as an earthquake which shook the world’s view of Arabs.

Burt now says that his country has great confidence in ordinary people. ”Ultimately the success or failure of these movements for change will be determined by the people of the region.”

However, Burt argues, they still need help. ”The international community must support people’s legitimate aspirations for freedom and accountability and must condemn and work to stop governments which seek to violently repress peaceful and just demands for change.”

Economy is crucial here. Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri harshly criticised foreign governments, including the UK, last week for their failure to fulfil previous pledges of financial assistance. While not providing direct economic support to Egypt, the UK argues that its investments help the Egyptian economy indirectly. ”The UK is the biggest investor in Egypt: In 2010, British companies accounted for over $4 billion of foreign direct investment – over 70 per cent of Egypt’s total,” says Burt.

“The UK is a close friend of Egypt and there has been sustained high-level engagement between our countries. The prime minister [David Cameron] was the first leader to visit Egypt after the fall of Mubarak in order to demonstrate Britain’s support for the transition,” he adds.

For London, assisting civil society in Egypt is crucial at this transitional period. “We are funding projects worth over £1.5m this year through the Arab Partnership to help reformers put the building blocks of democracy in place. For example,” he elaborates, “we have funded projects that support NGOs monitoring the elections; and help bolster an open and free media, greater access to economic opportunity and the rule of law. We are also working to provide peer support and advice to nascent political parties and parliamentarians, in particular female candidates.”  

However, this “old friendship” is not reflected in London’s handling of two controversial issues: the extradition of members of the toppled regime wanted on charges of corruption and repatriation of Egyptian assets frozen in UK banks. Burt refutes the impression in Egypt that his government is not doing enough to push through the extradition of former regime officials living in the UK and facing criminal charges in Egypt.

London always argues that despite there is no bilateral extradition treaty with Egypt; it is for the UK home secretary to decide whether or not to issue special extradition orders.

The most notable fugitive residing in the UK is Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the former Egyptian finance minster who fled there during the January 25 uprising. In June he was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison on corruption charges and ordered to return LE60 million illegally acquired while in office. Despite the court ruling, Egyptian authorities have not confirmed whether a request for Boutros-Ghali’s extradition has been made to the UK.

“As a point of principle I will say that if we are presented with compelling evidence we will act on it,” continues Burt. “We are committed to working with the Egyptian authorities on a range of issues, including on legal matters.”

Earlier this year the UK Treasury announced it had frozen more than £40m of Egyptian assts. Egyptian authorities have given no details as to what actions they have taken to retrieve the money, leading to the question of how long can UK authorities keep the assets frozen?

“Under EU restrictive measures, there is no formal process for repatriating frozen assets. Repatriation of assets by the UK authorities would require action to be taken under UK domestic law. This would require criminal convictions to be secured in Egypt and for an Egyptian court to make an order for the recovery of property. It would be for the Egyptian authorities to then make a request for enforcement of that order against assets located in the relevant part of the UK and for repatriation of any sums realised,” Burt replied .

When the uprising against Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi erupted, the UK government was quick to freeze assets held by his regime in the country, preventing billions of pounds sterling from being spirited into secret accounts. With Gaddafi gone, British authorities recently released £6.5 billion. Such action would have helped Egypt as it attempts to untangle the web of accounts and properties kept by former regime members currently facing charges and standing trial for corruption.

Burt argues that the situation of the two countries, however, differs on two counts. The first, he explains, relates to the role of the United Nations. ”In the case of Libya, United Nation sanctions were imposed very quickly once the Gaddafi regime began to use terrible violence against the population. There were no UN sanctions on Egypt. On 21 March EU Ministers agreed to freeze the assets of individuals identified by the Egyptian authorities as being responsible for the misappropriation of state funds. The UK implemented the EU freeze robustly: we passed enforcing legislation within 24 hours of the EU Regulation and have frozen millions in the UK under the EU asset freeze.”

The second difference pertains to the providence of the assets. ”it should be noted that most Libyan assets were state controlled while most frozen Egyptian assets were individual,” adds Burt.

Having supported the Mubarak regime, Britain has, since the dictator’s ouster, claimed that it supports the change in Egypt. James Watt, the ambassador to Cairo, has said: "Britain has strong shared interests with Egypt.” 

Burt goes further to state that the creation of a free, stable, peaceful and prosperous Egypt is in the UK’s national regional interest. As for how this would benefit Britain, Burt continues: “stability and security is in the interests of more than one million British nationals who visit Egypt each year; stability is in the interests of our companies which are the largest foreign investors in Egypt, and – it is worth emphasising – that British companies and ordinary Egyptians alike would benefit massively from a more transparent economic environment in which corruption is properly addressed; and it is also in our interests to work with a strong Egypt on shared foreign policy priorities.”

Aware that achieving the reforms which Egyptians took to the streets and ousted a regime for is no an easy mission, Burt believes the revolution provides an extraordinary opportunity for the Egyptian people. ” Genuine irreversible reform will take time,” he warns, “and there are significant obstacles to overcome.” The crucial thing here, as Burt put it, is “this transition is led by the Egyptians themselves.”

Early indications from the ongoing parliamentary elections show that Islamists will play a significant role in Egyptian politics in this new era. Would the UK respect and accept Egypt under the rule of a Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist-led government?

“We will respect their [Egyptians] choice. We believe that the key requirement of all parties taking part in the new political structures is that they should respect the democratic process and have a clear commitment to human rights, equality for all, the rule of law and non-violence. We engage with all political groups, including Islamists, who meet these criteria. It is not the label ‘Islamist’ which is important – it is a party’s actions,” responds Burt.

One of the UK’s main concerns in terms of how an Islamist government might affect the political reality is Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. “We would expect any future government of Egypt to abide by all its regional and international treaty obligations,” says Burt. Falling in line with his government’s regional interests continued Egyptian support of peaceful relations with Israel serves regional security.

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