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The West may condemn Egypt's abuses, but it's still business as usual

May 19, 2015 at 4:28 pm

This month, Egypt’s former President, Mohamed Morsi, was sentenced to death. He was among more than 100 defendants given the death penalty for their role in a mass jailbreak during the 2011 uprising that ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The trial has drawn international condemnation. Washington said that it had “consistently spoken out against the practice of mass trials and sentences” in Egypt. Meanwhile, the European Union’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini said that the trial was flawed and that the EU hoped that the sentences would be revised after appeal. “The court decision to seek the death penalty… was taken at the end of a mass trial that was not in line with Egypt’s obligations under international law,” she said in a statement.

Yet for all these condemnations, there is very little in the way of concrete action from Western powers. The US, for example, continues to work closely with Egypt. Morsi’s successor, former army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who took over in a coup in 2013 and has subsequently been elected president, is due to visit Germany on 3 June. Activists in Egypt who participated in the 2011 revolution have written an open letter calling on Germany to cancel the visit in protest at the mass death sentences.

The inconsistent behaviour of Western powers points, yet again, to their dilemma in dealing with the government in Cairo. Mubarak was a dictator but he was relatively secular, and they worked with him for decades. When he was ousted, it was in line with the principles that the US and its allies in the West have trumpeted for decades: a dictator was pushed out to make way for democracy. Yet when Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, became the country’s first democratically elected president, it put the same Western countries in an uncomfortable position. Despite their stated support of democracy above all else, democracy in this case had thrown up an Islamist leader with whom they were not entirely comfortable. This discomfort continued when Morsi was ousted in 2013; this was clearly a military takeover, yet the US and other Western nations instinctively prefer a secular leader and refused to call it a coup. Al-Sisi may have seized power, but at least he’s not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood; this was the message from Washington, London and other capitals.

This sentiment is clearly evident in the actions these international powers have taken since. Ties between Washington and Cairo initially plummeted after Morsi was deposed, with President Barack Obama’s administration freezing annual military aid of $1.3 billion to Egypt. But this was unblocked in late 2014, and links with Al-Sisi have improved steadily since. Egypt remains one of America’s closest security allies in the region. The EU has been highly critical of human rights abuses in Egypt, both as a bloc and as individual member states. Yet relations here, too, have followed the same trend of normalising gradually. The reasons are clear to see: bilateral trade between the EU and Egypt is worth a significant amount, while Europe also sees Cairo as an important partner in dealing with security issues and illegal immigration.

A level of realpolitik is to be expected in international relations, but calls from the US and the EU for Egypt to do more to democratise seem woefully inadequate given the scale of rights abuses in the country. In its annual report for 2014-15, Amnesty International was damning:

“The year saw a continued dramatic deterioration in human rights following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Thousands were arrested and detained as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent, with some detainees subjected to enforced disappearance. The Muslim Brotherhood remained banned and its leaders were detained and jailed. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained routine and was committed with impunity. Hundreds were sentenced to prison terms or to death after grossly unfair trials. Security forces used excessive force against protesters and committed unlawful killings with impunity. Women faced discrimination and violence. Some refugees were forcibly returned. Forced evictions continued. Dozens of people faced arrest and prosecution for their sexual orientation or identity. Courts imposed hundreds of death sentences; the first executions since 2011 were carried out in June.”

The US and EU are falling into a familiar pattern: condemning Egypt for its most egregious abuses while maintaining a close alliance. This has been seen in some of the West’s other relationships in the region for years, most notably with Saudi Arabia. While the Egyptian regime craved legitimacy after last year’s elections, it is also aware of its strategic importance to western countries, which is why it felt able to dismiss international criticism of Morsi’s death sentence as “unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the country”. Despite the turmoil that Egypt has seen over the past four years, little really changes; it’s still business as usual.

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