When Mohammed Morsi was deposed by the Egyptian military on 3 July, the international community was unsure how to react. The US held back from referring to events as a "coup", as this would trigger an automatic suspension of aid to Egypt.
The European Union was no less confused. Immediately after Morsi's demise, an EU spokesman gave a press conference, but avoided questions about whether it could be described as a coup d'etat, saying only: "We are, of course, not in favour of military interventions." The muted response stemmed from an uncertainty about how to respond: western powers do not support military takeovers, but equally did not want to support Morsi and political Islam.
Yet as events in Egypt turned from an apparently bloodless coup into a bloodbath, EU politicians began to ramp up their rhetoric. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt spoke in strong terms when he said that "primary responsibility [for the death toll] rests with the regime forces", and criticised the "unprecedented wave of repression and violence". He added: "It's very important that Europe speaks up." Now, more than two months after the deposition, did Europe, indeed, raise its voice, and what impact has it has?
The key moment was on 21 August, when an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers was held to discuss how to respond to events in Egypt. The meeting concluded with a decision to halt the EU's planned weapons exports to Egypt, and to withhold any equipment for security forces. A written statement said that the EU would "suspend export licenses to Egypt of any equipment which might be used for internal repression". There is a lot of money at stake here: according to the official report, EU export licenses for weapons and military equipment came to a total of 303 million euros ($406 million) in 2011. The head of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok, told journalists that the EU would not offer any aid that could help either the Muslim Brotherhood or the military. The aim of this decision, of course, was to attempt to limit the flow of weapons into Egypt and therefore to reduce the bloodshed. Ultimately, if the conflict could be de-escalated, it could encourage dialogue – something European diplomats have been tentatively working towards behind the scenes.
While it is easy to see the logic of such a decision, however, it remains something of a moot point while American military aid to the tune of $1.3 billion per year continues. Money is also flowing in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Speaking to the German newspaper Deutsche Welle, Brok conceded that given the brutality of the conflict "the EU cannot achieve much with symbolic gestures".
Stopping weapons exports has been the EU's main punitive step. There has simultaneously been a conscious effort to continue support for civil society. The EU's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said last month that while there is "great concern about acts of violence" among member states, it is also important to "[support] democratic forces" and the people of Egypt. Over the last three years, around 450 million euros have been sent to Egypt from the EU – not to the government, but to projects improving sanitation and water supplies, and constructing an underground train system in Cairo. A 5 billion euro aid package from Europe, agreed in 2012, was already mostly frozen as Egypt had failed to meet conditions on transparency and corruption.
Ashton has travelled to Egypt several times to encourage dialogue but, like other international mediators, has had little success. The mood in Egypt has been generally set against international intervention in the crisis. The EU was right to limit contributions to Egypt's military, but as atrocities continue and the human rights situation deteriorates still further, this move has clearly had little impact on events on the ground.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.