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Pressure grows on Europe to leverage relationship with Egypt and force change

February 16, 2022 at 4:45 pm

Egyptian-Palestinian political activist Ramy Shaath (L) holds the hand of his wife Celine Lebrun-Shaath as he arrives at Roissy airport in Roissy, outside Paris, on January 8, 2022 [JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images]

Over the weekend, former political prisoner Ramy Shaath told the BBC that the West has considerable leverage over Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a regional ally who has committed serious human rights abuses.

Shaath’s comments came ahead of a European Union-African Union summit set to be held at the end of this week where Al-Sisi will aim to secure meetings with European leaders to cement political support in exchange for lucrative deals.

Human Rights Watch has called on European countries not to roll out the red carpet at the forum and to instead use it to address the human rights crisis in the country through a “radical shift in Europe’s approach to Egypt.”

“Rather than dispensing baseless praise, European leaders should harness the opportunity of Sisi’s visit by publicly and privately raising concerns, formulating concrete calls for improvements, and articulating serious consequences for the Egyptian government if it persistently fails to comply,” said EU advocate Claudio Francavilla.

Pressure on the EU to put trade to one side and focus instead on political reform comes not long after the European Union was called out for proposing to lead a global counter-terrorism body with Egypt. Cairo has detained countless citizens under terror charges and killed civilians along the Libya border under a so-called counter-terror operation in collaboration with France.

READ: ‘Don’t roll out the red carpet for Egypt’s president,’ says HRW

In August last year, a leaked video showed the Egyptian military shooting a man at close range whilst he slept in North Sinai, where the government is pursuing a relentless and disproportionate military campaign in the name of the war on terror.

Yet preventing terrorism is one of the central ways politicians in Europe justify their close relationship with Egypt. Also important is Cairo’s role in stopping refugees reach Europe, a subject the Egyptian government has repeatedly hammered home. At a press conference on Saturday Egypt FM Sameh Shoukry said: “What the navy has done in impeding any kind of illegal immigration since September 2016 to Europe, I think, is of the utmost interest to our partners in Europe.”

Sisi's Prisons - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Egypt Sisi’s Prisons – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Analysts have accused the government of inflating the number of refugees in the country whilst Egyptians themselves have become refugees across the world, desperate to escape lengthy prison sentences, the death penalty and systematic torture. Therefore, to continue to support the Egyptian government will only perpetuate what certain European politicians are trying to prevent: the movement of people from North Africa to Europe.

It’s impossible to talk about Europe and Egypt without talking about arms deals. Berlin has exported more arms to Cairo than any other country for the third year running hitting record levels in 2021. It’s not just Europe that has given a green light to Egypt to continue business as usual. At the end of January US President Joe Biden authorised $2.5 billion worth of arms sales to Egypt despite the release of a state department report that acknowledged violations including torture and forced disappearance.

OPINION: Even consciences are inspected when Sisi chooses his employees

A few days later the US announced that it was withholding $130 million of military aid from the Egyptian government until it dropped charges against 16 political prisoners and closed Case 173 which has targeted NGOs and their employees but it was a drop in the ocean compared to the aircraft and radar system equipment it had just sold.

“Denying the ruthless government of President al-Sisi $130 million while moving forward with weapons deals and military aid worth nearly 30 times as much undermines the very purpose of reprogramming the funds,” Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) said in a statement on its website.

“In doing so, the administration also squandered what could have been a meaningful step toward fulfilling its promise to ‘centre’ human rights in its relationship with Egypt.”

Earlier this month 175 European politicians signed a letter urging the UN to address the human rights crisis in Egypt and establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on Egypt. On Saturday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in her first official tour to the Middle East that human rights will be central to Berlin’s international arms sales, including to Egypt.

But without significant change across Europe, Egyptians will not feel these tentative steps. This week alone an Egyptian terror court upheld the travel ban for lawyer Azza Souliman who defended rape and torture victims and dentist and former April 6 member Walid Shawky started a hunger strike to protest his pretrial detention. Nineteen rights groups have now called on Egypt to authorise urgent medical care for Salah Soltan after a January prison visit revealed he was seriously ill. With this in mind, the counter-terror collaborations, extensive weapons sales and silence on human rights violations are incredibly noisy.

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