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Catherine Ashton, the EU and Egypt: A different kind of democracy

Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Affairs High Representative, remains the only foreign official to have met with ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during his detention. Shortly after the coup that deposed him in July 2013, Ashton travelled to Egypt and along with meeting regime officials she was taken to meet with President Morsi.


Ashton has called for President Morsi to be released and for all other political detainees in Egypt to be released. In the months since the coup Ashton has made regular visits to Egypt and met with regime officials on every occasion. Yet despite her regular meetings President Morsi remains in detention, along with numerous other oppositionists, and is still due to stand trial.

July’s coup allowed the Egyptian military to seize power from Egypt’s first democratically elected government and president. The Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi were elected in free and fair elections that were observed by international monitors. The elections were hailed across the world as a sign that Egypt was making democratic progress. Indeed, writing in the New York Times in 2012 Ashton described the 12 months following the Arab Spring as “truly remarkable”. A renewed sense of optimism spread not just across the Middle East, but also across the world as change began to take force. But in July 2013, just one year later, that optimism was crushed in Egypt.

Those who have been following the events in Egypt since the coup know that many have voiced concern that the country is falling back into old habits and that the days when autocracy ruled have returned with a vengeance. Since the military backed authorities took control in Egypt, they have imposed a new president, a new government and a new constitution, the latter backed by a “referendum” that was subject to an opposition boycott and held under state oppression. There has been no respect for democracy, no care for the legitimate rights of the elected representatives and worse, rampant human rights abuses and widespread arrests and repression of oppositionists.

After the coup, in another piece for the New York Times, Ashton set out six steps that the EU would support to help Egypt return to a path of democracy. They included the need for full civilian rule with a renewed constitution, an inclusive political process, an end to violence, an end to arbitrary arrests and harassment and free elections. These steps were set out to suggest that Egypt could restore democracy if they were followed, and yet they ignored one crucial element. Those carrying out the steps would be the military rulers who had undemocratically usurped power. In her NYT article, Ashton noted that: “The European Union is a long-term partner and friend of Egypt. In every discussion I held last week I confirmed that our support and friendship will continue.”

The EU has consistently talked of a need for Egypt to return to democracy and to follow the transitional road map. As the Egyptian military used force and violence to exert their authority over the country, massacres were committed in those early days after the coup and the EU was quick to denounce the violence. Indeed, the EU called on all its member states to cease arms supplies to Egypt in the wake of the violence to prevent their use in repression against the Egyptian people.

Ahead of the constitutional referendum, Ashton stated that: “I would like to reassure the Egyptian people that the EU continues to support them in fulfilling the aspirations of the January 2011 revolution. Dignity, social justice, security, democracy, human rights and a better economy remain the goals the EU stands by Egypt to achieve. The constitutional process – both before and following the referendum – could offer a chance for a new political dialogue and interaction leading to democratic elections.”

In an interview with Al-Jazeera English broadcast after the referendum, Ashton said that the EU needed to see that Egypt was implementing the road map and for there to be an inclusive political process with a return to elections. Despite these claims, Egypt has continued to detain President Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, prevents oppositionists from protesting, and has gone so far as to denounce the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. The constitutional referendum was far from free and fair with those supporting a “no” vote unable to campaign and the supposed result suggesting that 98% of the turnout supported the constitution. The result was nothing but an echo of the Mubarak style elections of pre-Arab Spring Egypt.

In all their work the EU has always placed freedom as one of their top priorities. In the interview with AJE, Ashton was questioned about her views on Egypt in the context of the regime’s detention of five Al-Jazeera journalists. The state’s repression has not been limited to opposition activists and politicians, but has instead included journalists, women and even children. Whilst Ashton did say that she had called for their release, her relationship with the Egyptian regime has continued to strengthen, and the EU and Egypt are unlikely to fall out over Egypt’s poor human rights record.

The EU has consistently raised concerns about countries with poor human rights records, yet in the case of Egypt, despite these concerns, the relationship seems not to have wavered. The EU has, along with other countries including the US, continued its aid to Egypt. Although arms sales were halted after the massacres in August 2013, the EU spent more than 1 billion euros on aid to the country in 2013. James Moran, the EU ambassador to Cairo, said that Egypt’s most pressing need is security and the EU’s concern for security is of “paramount importance”.

The EU is a democratic institution; it has repeatedly called for the shared values of democracy and freedom to take hold in Egypt. Yet the EU has not denounced the military coup or the undemocratic regime it brought to power. There is no doubt that that the EU believes in the values of democracy that it espouses, but it seems in the context of its relationship with Egypt, the EU is willing to allow another form of democracy to establish itself: a democracy where power is grabbed through violence and force, where the military is establishing its ultimate control and where opposition to the state is crushed with brutal force. It does not seem to be the kind of democracy which would be at home anywhere in the EU, but perhaps in order to strengthen the EU’s relationship with General Al-Sisi and his colleagues, this is precisely the kind of “democracy” the EU is now willing to accept.

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

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