CAIRO: The European Union (EU) on Tuesday reaffirmed its policy of not making political reform a conditional requisite of the aid it supplies to Egypt.
Speaking at a press conference to mark the latest stage of EU aid in the Egyptian education sector, EU Head of Operations in Egypt, Georgios Tsitsopoulos says that “the EU considers reform an important part of any aid package, but this reform is and will continue to be sectorial.
This represents the continuation of the present policy whereby the EU calls for institutional reform in return for aid, but crucially only in the sector receiving the aid.
Tsitsopoulos insists that while the EU regards political reform as a vital component in the further development of Egypt, it does not take precedence over other reforms.
“The political reform is debated through political channels and while it represents a very important part of the overall development of Egypt, it is not the only important part, he argues.
The latest injection of aid represents the last one of the current EU educational aid package, which has run concurrently with the present EU budget. With that budget deal set to end on December 31, 2006, Tsitsopoulos would not go so far as to say that there would be a new package for the new budget period (which will run from 2007-2013), but discussions between Egypt and the EU on precisely such a package are understood to be at an advanced stage. He did say, however, that any new package would be under similar conditions to the present one.
Mohammed El Sayyed Said, an analyst with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says that it was unsurprising for the EU to continue their present policy when seen in light of the political situation both in the Middle East and in the EU.
“There are two primary factors behind the present EU policy, explains Said. “Firstly, Egypt has a much better political climate than its neighboring states and this presents the EU with a stark choice: to accept the present situation in Egypt, which, while not perfect, could be much worse, or to push for further reform which could alienate Egypt from the EU.
“This, combined with the second factor, namely that EU governments are more preoccupied with arms proliferation, the Iran and the Darfur crises and domestic problems means that they settle for the stability offered by the former of the two choices. Political reform is a long way down the priority list right now, adds Said.
Human rights movements were unsurprised by the policy, saying it was symbolic of the lack of EU negotiations with Egypt in general. Hossam Bahgat, director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that the EU had showed an “incredible lack of leadership during recent negotiations over the Neighbourhood Policy Plan.
The plan, which seeks to promote EU values in neighbouring countries in return for financial incentives, has recently come unstuck due to the wording of, amongst other things, human rights.
“There has been an incredible failure of leadership on the part of the EU when the negotiation [of] the Neighbourhood Policy project [began] with Egypt. This has manifested itself through far too many concessions on the part of the EU with regards to human rights, says Bahgat.
Bahgat also criticizes the lack of “civil society representation at such negotiations. “It is contradictory to exclude civil society from negotiations on issues which directly affect them. The EU should listen to what civil and human rights groups have to say instead of just listening and negotiating directly with the government. They need to move beyond just funding and start listening as well, he says.
In what may be seen as an attempt to distance the EU’s tactics for promoting reform from those of the United States, Tsitsopoulos states that EU policy is to help reform, not force it.
“There is a very frank dialogue taking place between the EU and Egypt on the issue of political reform, but the EU is trying to help reform happen naturally, not impose it, he says.
Said, however, disputes this, saying that while there may be subtle differences in tone, in practice there was very little difference between the EU and the U.S.
“The US has adopted a harsher tone on political reform of late, but in practice there is still little or no difference between the policies of the EU and the U.S., says Said. Egypt is still the second largest recipient of American direct aid after Israel. When quizzed on whether a linkage between reform and aid would not facilitate a faster pace of reform, Tsitopoulos says that “one can discuss the pace of change, but change is certainly taking place. For these reasons we are not making help in educational and health areas, for example, conditional to political reform.
The Education Enhancement Program has run in Egypt since February 1999 at a total cost of LE 740 million. The construction of 23 new schools announced this Tuesday takes the total number of schools constructed under the project to 148, while the project also recently financed 11,000 computers for 1,000 primary and preparatory schools.