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An alliance with Al-Sisi is a strategic error, but is it also dangerous for Britain?

June 26, 2015 at 11:47 am

On Tuesday afternoon, Egypt’s Interior Minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, met British ambassador John Casson in Cairo to discuss security issues in the region. Casson said that the reason for the meeting was to show Britain’s “readiness to cooperate with the Egyptian Interior Ministry to support efforts to combat the spread of extremism and tackle terrorist crimes which threaten the stability of countries across the world.” In an increasingly volatile region, it makes sense for London and Washington to gather as many allies as possible to ensure their security in such a strategic part of the world. What doesn’t make sense is to treat a government like Egypt’s with kid gloves when its policies are fuelling instability and extremism by demeaning human rights and undermining democracy.

Endorsing Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt is not only undermining British values of democracy and freedom, but is also dangerous for Britain’s long-term security. Backing a government that works under military rule, suppresses civil liberties and carries out mass killings helps to create instability because it increases civilian discontent, thus decreasing the likelihood of any respect for law and order.

Inflation in Egypt under Al-Sisi has risen to its highest level for five years. Food prices have soared beyond the reach of many Egyptians, with 40 per cent living in poverty, earning less than 15 Egyptian pounds ($2) a day. The rise in poverty in Egypt is hitting the rural areas disproportionately; 70 per cent of those Egyptians living in poverty live outside the cities. There are crackdowns not only against pro-democracy protesters but also anyone else who disagrees with the coup government. Egyptians are forced to keep a smile on their faces and hail President Al-Sisi in public, or face imprisonment, torture or death. There is no legal outlet for them to express their discontent let alone to mobilise as a community without being criminalised or, in government-speak, threaten Egypt’s national security. This, however, does not silence people, nor suppress their political activity. They then seek to instigate change, but rather than using democratic means – which have been suppressed by the government – they resort to violence, increasing the likelihood of, yes, terrorism. So Al-Sisi’s efforts to stop terrorism, aided by the likes of the British government, are more likely to increase it.

Almost every foreign operation the West has carried out for the past 14 years has been in the name of countering terrorism. It looks like a legitimate claim. You see something overseas that could possibly affect your country in an increasingly globalised world, so you naturally feel inclined to do something about it. You want to secure allies who will keep your interests as priorities, but in Egypt’s case, this particular ally is not in any way strategic, nor does it comply with the values of democracy and freedom that you claim to uphold as a country.

The justification for this is that in today’s dangerous world, security trumps democracy. This is not only a dangerous presumption upon which to base foreign and defence policies; it is also counterproductive. The truth is, without a democratic government that upholds human rights, liberties and a fair judiciary, stability is a fantasy. Inequalities in the MENA region especially, are the reason for social upheaval; we saw this kick-off four years ago in Tunisia, which posed more foreign policy and security challenges to Britain.

The British shift towards a Middle East dictator is nothing new. What was surprising was the timing of the invitation for Al-Sisi to visit Britain, coming just a day after the death sentence was passed on ousted President Mohamed Morsi. This sentence was criticised by the UN, EU and the US for being unfair and an attack on democratic values. Earlier this year BP signed a deal to invest $12 billion in Egypt with the aim of producing 3 billion barrels of oil and help Egypt tackle its worst fuel crisis in decades. Rather than sanctioning the current Egyptian government for the many ways that it has oppressed its own citizens – thus increasing the kind of dissent that made Egyptians go to Tahrir Square in their millions in 2011 – the British government is spoon-feeding the regime. There are no public condemnations of Al-Sisi’s human rights abuses done in the name of countering the very terrorism that he is allowing to grow with the living conditions that he is forcing on his people.

This is creating a “them and us” split in British society at a time when unity and interfaith dialogue are desperately needed. Last week the prime minister made a blanket condemnation of the whole British Muslim community and accused the second largest religious group in our country of “quietly condoning ISIS”. Statistically, that is nonsense; according to a Kings College London study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, just 700 out of the 2,786,635 British Muslims have joined ISIS. Mr Cameron is, therefore, pointing the finger at the whole community for the actions of 0.02512 per cent of their co-religionists.

Even Charles Farr, the director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office, condemned the prime minister’s comments. The political elite, said Farr, “risk[s] labelling Muslim communities as somehow intrinsically extremist” when, really, both statistics and simple day-to-day observations across British society demonstrate the opposite.

Strengthening relations with Al-Sisi’s government, which is on the frontline of human rights abuses and accuses opponents of being Islamic extremists, will only skew the “them and us” gap further. It does not reflect the stance of most reasonable Britons of all faiths and none. British foreign policy needs to draw parallels between stability and democracy when looking at overseas security issues. The politicians who draft it should tune into British society and stop sending the wrong kind of message to Muslims built around narratives that have the potential to damage British society immeasurably. They also need to reconsider the notion of getting closer to a man – step forward Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi – whose judiciary has just passed the death sentence on two men who died in 2009 for crimes that they are supposed to have committed in 2011. What on earth is David Cameron thinking of by inviting him to Downing Street?

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