On Saturday military strongman Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi promised to punish the “wrongdoers” responsible for the boat that capsized off the coast of Egypt last week. At least 194 people drowned after the overcrowded vessel gave way to the sheer number of people on board; 169 people have been rescued but many more are still missing.
According to CNN, on the same day the Egyptian coastguard foiled an illegal immigration attempt and rescued 294 people on a boat close to Al-Alamein. A day before the military arrested 68 people off the coast of Matrouh on a vessel headed for Europe.
Al-Sisi recently told the United Nations General Assembly that countering illegal immigration is a top priority for the Egyptian government who has increased efforts to secure its borders. Egypt already has anti-trafficking Law 64, which stipulates prison terms of three to 15 years and fines of over $25,000 for smugglers, and is working on further legislation to this effect.
Since the fighting in Libya has worsened and Daesh has consolidated its presence in the country, more and more refugees are choosing Egypt over Libya as a starting point for the journey to Europe and Al-Sisi has been under growing pressure internationally to deal with the refugee crisis.
Last Friday President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz suggested that Egypt should not be allowed to receive its $12 billion IMF loan if it does not cooperate with the EU on curbing migrant flows. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the EU should establish a migrant deal with Egypt similar to the one it struck with Turkey earlier this year.
Egyptian police have now arrested the suspected owner of the boat and four crew members who will face charges of manslaughter and human trafficking. Those responsible for packing a boat with a capacity of 200 with 400 people should of course take their part of the blame for such a tragedy but given Egypt’s record of arbitrary arrests – it’s worth considering whether the people in custody are really responsible – or if they have become scapegoats. For months Egyptian police maintained that a criminal gang was to blame for the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni, despite accusations that it was a cover up. Now authorities are saying it’s unlikely the group had any involvement in the killing.
In what seemed like a farcical statement against the backdrop of human rights abuses he himself has been inflicting on people in Egypt, Al-Sisi declared that the smugglers took advantage of Egyptian citizens and foreigners. Al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on freedom of speech and the growing phenomenon of enforced disappearances, torture and sexual abuse in prison have played a very large part in the fact that Egyptians are one of the top 10 nationalities on board the boats crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life.
It’s not just Egyptians who want to leave the country. Egypt has traditionally hosted refugees from the horn of Africa and, since 2003, Iraqis fleeing the US-led invasion there. Since 2011, Syrians have also sought sanctuary in the country and whilst all refugees have been subjected to discrimination, Syrians in particular have been attacked, threatened and demonised by the media and public figures and been subject to arbitrary arrest, detention and forcible deportation.
Last year, 73 Syrian and Palestinian refugees were forced to land and then arrested off the coast of Alexandria after leaving Turkey by boat to reach Italy. They were held at Karmooz police station in Alexandria for seven months despite the fact that charges against them were dropped. Thousands of refugees who have attempted to leave Egypt have been detained in their notorious prisons.
On his part, Al-Sisi makes no acknowledgement of this: “Many of the refugees in Egypt enjoy equal rights with Egyptian citizens in education, health and housing services. They are also benefiting from the subsidy system despite the huge burden on Egypt’s general budget.”
Addressing a crowd in Alexandria on Monday, Al-Sisi first paused for a moment of silence in respect for those that drowned last week, before proposing increased job opportunities, development projects and the creation of enterprises as a way to provide support to young Egyptians and offer them an alternative to illegal immigration. But throughout his presidency Al-Sisi has made too many empty promises – funding from the Gulf states and international donors which didn’t arrive and infrastructure developments which were never built. Instead of vowing more schemes he can’t deliver, Al-Sisi should start with ensuring human rights, free speech and the abolishment of torture for all Egyptians.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.