When western countries are criticised for legitimising Egypt’s oppressive rule, excuses are offered in return. One response is that Egypt does not heed their concerns regarding the dire human rights conditions. “We’ve tried telling them, but they don’t listen,” is a common way of phrasing it. As to why business deals proceed smoothly despite Egypt’s record breaking rights violations, the response is that the west cannot fix Egypt’s problems or put an end to the repression.
It is true: Egypt’s main problems are essentially an internal matter that cannot be solved by the west. Indeed, solutions should not be requested or expected from western countries. Yet the rhetoric is faulty and aims to absolve countries supporting present day Egypt of their actions.
Countries like the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, and indeed the entire EU have not been keen on condemning Egypt’s practices recently. In the past, they would in private meetings and occasionally in public statements, but now bringing up the topic has become rare. Continued business agreements further embolden and empower the Egyptian regime. Even if no change comes about through western countries adhering to their proclaimed moral standards, the west’s perceived ineffectiveness of even trying is not a valid excuse. It contributes negatively to the deterring rights conditions in Egypt.
Ongoing arms deals, energy contracts, and numerous other forms of trade are viewed as an opportunity to become ‘friends’ with Egypt. Theoretically, this would allow these partners to have more influence on how Egypt acts. Surely they would not refuse advice or requests from friends?
This notion, despite its popularity, has proven unrealistic. The US has been closer to Egypt’s regime than most other western countries, yet has also complained that their ‘friends’ do not listen to them. So much so that they have dropped the façade and do not ever bother condemning Egypt’s atrocities anymore. In fact, the Obama administration proposed waiving the human rights conditions on aid to Egypt.
France had a similar revealing encounter. François Hollande visited Egypt personally to solidify business and arms deals, further legitimising President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s rule. In late May, a French journalist was denied entry to Egypt, embarrassingly at the same time when French members of parliament, headed by Philippe Folliot, were visiting Egypt. Try as they might with their ‘friends’, the matter has not yet been cleared. Rémy Pigaglio was detained for thirty hours before being forced to leave Egypt, despite having arrived with a valid visa and press accreditation, while French MPs’ pleas for more information and demands in favour of Pigaglio fell on deaf ears.
The violations of rights and democratic values are countless. One blatant example is the attack on press freedom, with an unprecedented storming of the Press Syndicate and the detention of the head of the Press Syndicate, Yehia Qallash, along with several other board members. Similarly, death sentences without a fair trial, arbitrary pre-trial detentions that can last for years, the invasion of privacy as police allow themselves to browse people’s personal phones without a warrant, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings are all on the rise and seem to raise no eyebrows.
In response to the undeniable documentation of these attacks on basic human values, numerous diplomats have claimed that Egypt is helping to fight terrorism. This is problematic for many reasons. Accepting rights violations carried out by a state in order to fight terrorism is not an acceptable stance and it defeats the purpose. Can we accept the murder of Giulio Regeni, in which security services are implicated, simply because Egypt is fighting terrorism? One of terrorism’s aims is to deprive people of their basic rights, and that is exactly what rights violations are all about.
But even if we accept the problematic notion that these violations can be tolerated because of the fight against terrorism, it is not accurate to assess that Egypt is successful at it. Since Al-Sisi asked the masses to commission him to fight terror on 26 July 2013, the numbers of extremist militants in Sinai have been on the rise. It is estimated that the numbers increased from the tens to the hundreds. Young people, and particularly residents of North Sinai, are being forcibly disappeared. This is being carried randomly and often without any associations to terrorism and a great many have the potential of being radicalised due to the injustices they face.
Indeed, the biggest hole in that elaborate theory is the persistent and deliberate crackdown on secular democratic peaceful voices coupled with underhanded deals with religious extremists. Sustaining Al-Sisi’s rule does not help avert a Syria or Islamic State scenario. Locking up peaceful activists does nothing but contribute to the rise of extremist opposition. Banning rights defenders from travel with the threat of asset seizure does not make sense. The fight on terror is never won when the same terror tactics are exercised by others who are slightly more likeable.
Diplomats who have met Al-Sisi are reported to have found him ‘likeable’. He has been able to cater to what they want to hear, irrespective of the facts on the ground. It is easy to believe that the judiciary is beyond control, that he is trying to fight corruption and that police reform is a work in progress when it is not contrasted by the stark reality of politicised sentencing, police impunity, and the sacking of and investigation into Egypt’s top auditor Hesham Geneina for exposing corruption of state bodies.
It may be the duty of representatives from these countries to do what’s best for their people, but it is also a moral duty to point out moral and logical inconsistencies. Even token gestures of bringing up rights or condemning violations of democratic values have all but disappeared. More recently we have seen British ambassador to Egypt John Casson criticised for failing to mention human rights as an option on the agenda of British MPs visiting Egypt. Similarly, Gerard Steegh, the Dutch ambassador to Egypt has stressed that Egypt made progress in its transition to democracy despite human rights violations on the rise at an all-time high.
In some ways, facts became less consequential as the moral question became needlessly compounded. More and more these facts need to be evaded through a series of ‘practical’ concerns. The US and Europe are not responsible for what the Egyptian regime does, and likewise Egypt is not oppressive simply because of international support. Yet, it is important to realise that western empowerment has a role to play and it hinders Egypt’s struggle for democracy and a true stability built on justice.
Western countries that currently support the Egyptian regime will most certainly condemn it when it shows signs of change, just like they did with Mubarak. It is these western countries, not Egyptian officials, who have claimed they support democratic values. The least they can do is live up to their own rhetoric minus the excuses. Until the rhetoric matches actions, the war on democratic values by Egypt and its western allies continues. Meanwhile, excuses offered come off as nothing but propaganda.
Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He is a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and has written for Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, Counterpunch, and Jadaliyya, among others. He blogs at notesfromtheunderground.net