In Focus: Egypt and the EU: A Whirlwind

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Perhaps the most gripping aspect of the recent dispute between Egypt and the European Union over a European Parliament resolution criticizing Egypt’s human rights situation, is how poorly the crisis was handled by both sides.

The crux of the problem doesn’t, however, lie in the content of the EP report, but rather in the sharp language used in it – which the Egyptian government is not accustomed to from the Europeans.

The EU had previously made a passing reference to some human rights violations concerning the imprisonment of ex-opposition leader Ayman Nour. But this time around, apart from Nour’s case, the report was sharp and direct in its criticism of hot issues such as the clampdown on freedom of expression, jail sentences given to journalists, prison torture and the legality of military courts.

The Egyptian government definitely has the right to reject any attempts to interfere in its internal affairs. But I don’t see any justification for this hypersensitivity when it comes to international reports tackling issues of political reform, democratization and human rights, especially since the reality on the ground confirms these violations to varying degrees.

The Egyptian government mishandled the crisis in a way that has provoked the dissatisfaction of many, as well as revealed the fragility of Egypt’s political climate. The foreign ministry’s statement commenting on the crisis was naively superficial. Instead of offering a rational, objective response to the criticism mentioned in the report, the statement was an angry condemnation of the human rights violations faced by Muslims in Europe. If anything, this reaction proves the government’s volatility and its inability to properly assess the situation.

Apart from the diplomatic aspects framing Egypt’s relationship with the EU (particularly in light of the partnership agreement of 2001) the recent crisis also reveals the government’s failure to interact with major international players. It would have been more plausible for it to initiate continuous negotiations between both parties to iron out any misunderstanding.

This would have kept the doors firmly shut in the face of third parties who have vested interests to politicize the issue and use it as a bargaining chip the way Israel usually does.

The Egyptian government should have had the courage to admit the existence of human rights violations which are not restricted to Egypt alone, but are an international phenomenon found in established democracies like the United States; the scandals exposed in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo in the past seven years are ready proof of that.

Furthermore, blatant violations of human rights are a regional phenomenon monitored closely by international human rights organizations.

What our government doesn’t know is that human rights issues are no longer internal, but have become central in governing international relations and hence must be handled with a high degree of awareness and political intelligence, not with intense emotional reactions that could lead to serious fractures in our relations with the international community.

To overcome this crisis as quickly as possible, I suggest that a delegation of government officials and civil society representatives start a real dialogue with the European Parliament to clear the air and clarify the situation. The last thing we want is to jeopardize our strategic relationship with the EU. This crisis may just end up being a storm in a teacup.

Khalil Al-Ananiis an expert on Political Islam and Deputy Editor of Al Siyassa Al Dawliya journal published by Al-Ahram Foundation.

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