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EU warned about "rushing back into normal relations" with Egypt

January 28, 2014 at 4:05 am

The launch of the European Council on Foreign Relations report, “Egypt’s Unsustainable Crackdown”, comes as the country is due to hold a constitutional referendum. The military-backed regime, which has rewritten the constitution approved by a majority of Egyptians in 2012, will hold a referendum on the 14 – 15th January; it is hoping to secure legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian public and is expected to use the referendum to support its claim that it has such public support. Ever since the July coup last year, which ousted President Mohamed Morsi, the government has claimed to be acting on behalf of the Egyptian people.

In the ECFR report, authors Anthony Dworkin and Hélène Michou argue that whilst the regime may want to give the impression “that the country is back on track towards democracy”, in practice a “political solution to the country’s divisions remains far off.” In giving advice to the European Union on its relationship with Egypt and how it should handle the constitutional referendum, the authors warn that the EU should avoid the “temptation” of rapid normalisation. Indeed, they begin by explaining that “it would be wrong to believe that Egypt’s current trajectory is towards either meaningful democracy or stability” given that the army continues to control the country.

The report explains that the regime is unlikely to get the kind of support that will give it the endorsement it is actually seeking and outlines the number of unknowns facing Egypt: the timetable of parliamentary and presidential elections; whether General Al-Sisi will stand as a presidential candidate; and what the future plans of the Muslim Brotherhood will be. It suggests that given the current situation the long term future of Egypt is difficult to predict and that, in the short term, the situation seems to be pointing towards further confrontation between the military-backed regime and the Brotherhood. Indeed, the authors go on to quote an “experienced and independent-minded Egyptian diplomat” whose assessment is that the situation will get worse before it gets better.

In their warning to the European Union, Dworkin and Michou present a number of factors that must be considered as the EU reconsiders its relationship with Egypt. Commenting on the constitution itself they note that the committee which drafted the new text had “no democratic accountability and included no one linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.” They then highlight the main problems with the constitution: that it endorses the removal of Morsi for the advancement of Egyptian democracy, equates Mohamed Morsi with Hosni Mubarak and refers to the “January 25- June 30 revolution”. Herein lies the main problem; the Egyptian military is claiming that it’s coup against the country’s democratically-elected president was supported by the same wave of protesters who had brought about the downfall of the autocratic ruler who had dominated Egyptian politics for decades. In reality, the January 25th Revolution brought together a broad swathe of supporters who all protested against Mubarak. The July 3rd coup did not have the level of popular support that the military claimed and army chiefs used protests as a cover for their removal of the legitimate president to promote their own objectives. Although the authors attempt to highlight the positive aspects of the constitution, in that the human rights clauses are stronger than before, they note that these conditions are still not enough for the leftist and revolutionary political movements who are opposing it.

The report’s publication comes as the Freedom and Justice Party’s legal team announced that they would be filing charges against the Egyptian military at the International Criminal Court. The legal team has been investigating and compiling evidence from witnesses following the killings of at least 1,120 protesters during the military crackdown. At a press conference in London, the legal team accused the regime of “crimes against humanity”. Echoing this, the ECFR report noted that the draft constitution’s security provisions are an extension of the measures that have been in place since Morsi’s ousting and that, most significantly, those members of the Muslim Brotherhood currently in detention are facing politically-motivated charges, with human rights groups claiming that they are baseless. The report also pointed out that the Egyptian regime has failed to set up an investigation into the killing of protesters by the security forces.

As the government continues to inflict its authority on the country it has closed Brotherhood media outlets, courts have given protesters harsh sentences and schoolchildren have been detained for displaying Islamic movement symbols. Dworkin and Michou examine the intensity of the security crackdown by the Egyptian regime, exposing recent developments determined to strengthen the regime’s authority. There have been a number of measures to ensure this, most recently, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood was designated as a “terrorist organisation”. The report explains that given the counter-terrorism bill introduced by the Interior Ministry last autumn which incorporates a broad definition of terrorism and a prison sentence for anyone directly or indirectly involved, the recent measures now take on “additional significance”.

With the various measures now in place, the Egyptian regime is ensuring that the crackdown on the Brotherhood and all other opposition groups is as harsh and repressive as possible. The ECFR report explains that the regime is alienating the movement, and getting the state media to act as the “mouthpiece for the regime’s anti-Brotherhood line.” Whilst the Brotherhood may have gained favour and won the democratic election two years ago, the regime’s aim now is to portray the movement as having lost this support in favour of a military-backed authority. In fact, the report describes the 2012 elections as having been a contest for president without “developed parties behind” the candidates. This problematic background provides the space in which a new political life needs to develop and of which the regime is taking advantage to widen the gap between opposition groups in Egypt.

In their examination of the political future for Egypt, Dworkin and Michou explain that when the requirement to hold parliamentary elections before presidential elections was dropped it paved the way for the possibility for a president to be elected who could then bring about the election of supportive parliamentary candidates. The authors noted that “analysts also believe that Al-Sisi is genuinely undecided about whether to run for president.”

The report argues that the “largest variable in Egypt’s immediate future” is the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party. Quoting a Zogby poll they highlight that 48 per cent of the population has confidence in the MUslim Brotherhood, describing it as “striking”. Yet the authorities are on a campaign to destroy the group as a political force. However, the authors believe that repression of the Brotherhood would be more likely to increase violence and lead to further violent Islamist currents increasing in number. Whilst it is unlikely that Brotherhood supporters would turn to “jihadist movements” as the report suggests, if the movement was to be forced out of Egypt, their assessment that the message is “that Islamists will never be allowed to compete fairly and win in democratic politics” would be all too accurate. The report notes that there has been discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood working with the regime, but the movement’s line remains that it will not be involved because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the current military-led regime.

Exploring the myriad of problems currently facing the Egyptian regime the ECFR report warns EU members against “rushing back into normal relations with the interim authorities.” The authors explain that the EU’s message should be to “emphasise that political stability, economic development and security are only likely to emerge if the Egyptian authorities pursue a different course that encompasses a political vision for reintegrating Egyptian society.”

As the constitutional referendum approaches, the EU will be forced to make a decision as to whether or not send observers. Dworkin and Michou warn that “it would be better not send a mission if its only effect would be to rubber-stamp a process of notice that takes place within an inherently biased framework.”

Since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi, EU governments have come under close scrutiny over their dealings with the Egyptian regime. After the massacre in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square, the EU banned the sale of equipment which could be used against the civilian population. Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Affairs High Representative, was the first person to meet with Mohamed Morsi in detention. Yet as the ECFR report rightly outlines, the EU needs to continue to take a critical approach in its relationship with Egypt; it must use its position where it can to influence the regime, “emphasising the inadequacy of the security drive approach”. Indeed, “European officials will be best positioned to contribute to the development of the inclusive and reformist settlement that Egypt will ultimately need in in order to leave it recurrent political crises behind.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.