Although the British media made little of it, the 21 January meeting at 10 Downing Street between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi was a diplomatic coup for the latter, one that was heavily reported in the Egyptian media. Typical of the comments made were those in Al-Masry Al-Youm saluting a meeting of “shared values and common concerns”.
“Sisi,” the anonymous writer said, “hailed the remarkable momentum witnessed in bilateral relations between the two countries in all fields.” For his part, Johnson, according to the news site, “stressed on his country’s keenness to improve relations with Egypt, especially in the economic and trade fields.” A brief statement from the Prime Minister’s office was a little more restrained, noting simply that “the two leaders agreed on the need to increase trade between the UK and Egypt.”
Libya, where Egypt together with the United Arab Emirates and France back the renegade General Khalifa Haftar as he besieges the capital Tripoli, got a pro forma mention. Johnson called for a ceasefire and for UN-led talks to find a political solution. Sisi spoke about a concerted joint effort between the two countries to settle the situation, a highly unlikely scenario.
The real emphasis was on trade. The EU and Egypt already have a free trade deal but should Britain crash out of Europe without a Brexit agreement, then it is going to need to fix arrangements with Egypt pretty sharpish to ensure that trade continues with minimal disruption. Ultimately, Johnson wants a free trade deal with Egypt. That will not happen overnight and, in the meantime, should Britain not agree arrangements, then World Trade Organisation rules kick in. Those rules, according to the government’s own website, affect the export of controlled goods, including “military items, dual-use items (items with both civil and military uses) and firearms” also known as the arms trade. As a measure of how important this is to Britain, a government agency that deals with arms sales has designated Egypt as a core market.
Since Sisi came to power in the 2013 coup that overthrew the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi, the British government has approved hundreds of arms export licences despite compelling evidence of human rights abuses. Following a court of appeal decision in June 2019, the government suspended the licences while it prepares an appeal. However, the latest figures show that from October 2016, nearly £26 million worth of export licences were approved. However, it is what was allowed for export before the suspension that is telling: machine guns, sniper rifles, assault rifles, small arms ammunition and helmets, all of which could be used in the suppression of public protests. Clearly the British government was not concerned about a regime that slaughtered more than 800 people in 2013 in what has become known as the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Massacre.
Nor is Boris Johnson showing any concern for the ongoing human rights abuses in Egypt, such as the awful conditions in the country’s overcrowded prisons. Sisi has claimed that there are no political prisoners, only extremists who threaten society. In reality, there are an estimated 60,000 prisoners of conscience held in Egypt. Prisoners are denied sufficient food and have medication and medical treatment withheld. They are coerced and tortured into giving false confessions. Their families are routinely refused access, as are their lawyers, who themselves face arrest if they annoy the authorities by pursuing the rights of their clients.
Furthermore, the use of solitary confinement is pervasive. Morsi was held in isolation for most of his six years in captivity and denied medication. He collapsed and died in a Cairo courtroom in June last year. In November, a panel of UN experts led by Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, concluded that Morsi’s death “after enduring those conditions could amount to a State-sanctioned arbitrary killing.” The UN report went on to note that because of the denial of medical treatment, Morsi “progressively lost the vision in his left eye, had recurrent diabetic comas and fainted repeatedly.”
It was not to be expected that the Egyptian media would raise the issue of human rights abuses this week; surely, though, the statement from the Prime Minister’s office could have made at least a passing reference to it. But no, Johnson is in urgent need of trade deals. Egypt is a good market for British exports, including weapons. Better to welcome “the resumption of flights to Sharm El Sheikh” than to push for human rights. Small wonder that the Egyptian President was photographed at 10 Downing Street smiling like the proverbial Cheshire cat.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.