Foreign ministers vow to promote ‘dialogue’ in Egypt

William Hague

The European Union stopped short of agreeing immediate cuts in financial or military assistance to Cairo yesterday (21 August), as the bloc's foreign ministers held emergency talks to find ways to help bring an end to violence in Egypt.

 

The decision acknowledges Europe's limited economic muscle in forcing Egypt's army-backed rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood into a peaceful compromise.

It also reflects a concern that abruptly cutting aid could shut dialogue with Cairo's military rulers and damage Europe's ability to mediate in any future negotiations to end the worst internal strife in Egypt's modern history.

The European Union, seen as more neutral than the United States, which provides aid to Egypt's military, has emerged a key player in Egypt since the army deposed ?Mohamed Morsi on 3 July. The new government allowed the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to become the first foreign official to see him in detention.

"The principles of our policy are to support democratic institutions, not to take sides," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters after meeting his EU counterparts in Brussels.

"It is to continue to promote political dialogue and being able to maintain a position where we can continue to do that."

The ministers agreed to review any financial aid given to Egypt but said assistance to civil society would continue.

Arms trade

They also agreed to suspend exports to Egypt of any equipment that can be used for internal repression and review any arms sales, though stopping short of explicitly agreeing to end such trade.

"We want to continue to have a strong relationship with Egypt and to be able to offer our support, but we stand by the principles and values that we hold," Ashton told reporters after the meeting. "If we can be of assistance, we would do so."

Underscoring reluctance elsewhere in the West to take decisive action after violence in Egypt that has killed over 900 in the past week, the United States denied on Tuesday that any aid to Cairo has been cut but stressed that the army's bloody crackdown on protesters may influence their assistance.

In their final communiqué, ministers described as “disproportionate” the violence by the authorities’ forces in dispersing the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August. They also condemned “acts of terrorism” by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the murder of policemen in the Sinai, destruction of many churches and the targeting of the Coptic community, attacks on government installations and museums.

Calls for tougher international action grew louder after the Egyptian authorities defied Western pleas for restraint and ordered the storming of camps of Morsi supporters in the past week.

Aid limits

The EU ministers' reluctance to cut aid reflects difficulties in implementing the decision because the vast majority of current assistance is directed at civil society groups and social programmes.

Direct budget assistance from the EU institutions was stopped last year, and a €5 billion package of grants and loans pledged last year hinges largely on democratic and economic reforms, which are lacking.

Blunting any impact of western aid cutbacks, Saudi Arabia has also pledged to plug any shortfalls.

Several EU governments have already implemented some cuts in assistance but privately, diplomats said, some are expressing concern that removing all security assistance to Egypt could damage the authorities' ability to address Islamist attacks in the lawless north Sinai region.

Britain has already suspended some joint work with the Egyptian security forces and revoked licences to export arms. Hague has said in the past the EU could not, however, rule out future assistance.

Egypt's main source of military assistance is the United States, which supplies its army with $1.3 billion (€974 million) a year, with most spent to buy and maintain US-made weapons.

Germany, one of the world's largest arms exporters, has provided millions of euros' worth of arms in recent years, though the government has stopped approving such sales since July.

Mubarak to be released

Meanwhile Egyptian authorities announced that former President Hosni Mubarak will leave jail as early as today after a court ruling.

Mubarak will then be put under house arrest, the prime minister's office said in a statement. The decision was authorised under Egypt's Emergency Law recently enacted under a security crackdown on Islamists, it added.

By keeping Mubarak under house arrest, Egyptian leaders may be trying to show they will not be too lenient with him to avoid angering the many Egyptians who held mass protests that led to the end of his iron rule in 2011.

Two groups of activists have already called for sit-ins in Cairo to protest against his expected release.

Mubarak, 85, was sentenced to life in prison last year for failing to prevent the killing of demonstrators. But a court accepted his appeal earlier this year and ordered a retrial.

The ailing ex-president probably has no political future, but some Egyptians were indignant at the court ruling, which state prosecutor Ahmed el-Bahrawi said cannot be appealed.

Mohamed Morsi became Egypt's first freely elected leader in June 2012, but failed to tackle a deep economic malaise and worried many Egyptians with apparent efforts to tighten Islamist rule.

Liberals and young Egyptians staged huge rallies demanding his resignation. On 3 July he was toppled by the army. The authorities have responded with violence to protests by his supporter from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Almost 900 people, including more than 100 soldiers and police, have been killed since the authorities forcibly dispersed Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August.

President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, two of the most senior EU officials, said in a statement on 18 August that the 28-member bloc should "urgently review" its relations with Cairo to try to end the violence.

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