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They will come knocking at the doors of Europe unless we act now

May 5, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Last weekend the Guardian newspaper reported the tragic story of six young Egyptians who drowned off the Sicilian coast. Aged between 17 and 23 years old, they were on an overloaded boat carrying migrants, mainly Syrian and Egyptian, to Italy. While many would probably have stayed and joined the ranks of Italy’s large Egyptian community, others would have made their way to other European countries.

This tragedy highlights the fact that the on-going military suppression of anti-coup protesters in Egypt has the potential to become a major domestic problem for European Union countries, for two reasons.

An exodus of angry and disenchanted youth from Egypt will not go south to Sudan or west to Libya. They will head north across the Mediterranean to Europe where universal human rights, the rule of law and democratic traditions are generally well-respected. If the current crisis escalates into a protracted and bloody civil war, as it now threatens to do, it would make the Syrian refugee crisis look like a walk in the park. Egypt is, after all, the most populous country in the Arab world.

Like the six young men washed up on a Sicilian beach refugees will come in human waves bearing all the pain and anguish inflicted by a brutal military dictatorship that is funded, aided and protected by the West. No one in the Middle East believes that Egypt’s military leadership is acting independently as their main backer is the US. The social, economic and security challenges that this would pose for EU countries are unimaginable.

Although it is still possible to stave off a civil war in Egypt, the massacre of peaceful protesters on 14 August could so easily be the catalyst that kicks it off. As the Muslim Brotherhood’s Dr Muhammad Biltagi affirmed shortly after his daughter was murdered by coup forces on Wednesday, “What Sisi is doing is not merely the disbanding of our rally but embroiling the army, its officers and its soldiers in a civil war so that he alone is not brought to justice for war crimes.”

Already, without the turmoil of such a war, the season for northerly migration has begun. The UN has reported that during the first six months of this year about 8,400 migrants and asylum seekers attempted to land on the coast of Malta and Italy. Many hailed from Egypt, Syria and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The second threat emerging from a destabilised Egypt is much more ominous. Attempts to exclude proponents of political Islam from the political process in Egypt will almost certainly clear the way for the rise of jihadist tendencies. Many young people who were disillusioned by the denial of their democratic rights and victimised by the Egyptian military, with the tacit approval of western governments, will opt for this alternative.

All in all we are facing a menacing spectre that could wreak untold havoc in the international system. Western governments bear a special responsibility to pre-empt this scenario. MEMO views as totally disingenuous the remarks of Italy’s foreign minister who, when commenting on the death of the young Egyptians last weekend, said there was no miracle solution to a phenomenon which often leads to fatalities off the country’s coastline.

No one is asking for miracle solutions. What is required is an act of political leadership and statesmanship by the US and its European partners: the suspension of all military aid to the Egyptian armed forces. They face no imminent threat from neighbouring states and have demonstrated that they have no intention of attacking anyone beyond their borders. Similarly, European leaders must break their silence and disgraceful equivocation over events in Egypt. The Danish government has set a lead by suspending aid to the country and others must follow. The message to the coup leaders must be clear and unequivocal, so that there is no mistaking the fact that they do not enjoy legitimacy and international support.

Undoubtedly, the young people who defend democracy in Egypt today are the only hope that it will prevail. It is in Europe’s strategic interest to encourage and support them every step of the way.