EU policy towards Egypt must focus on human rights

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Marietje Schaake [Bram Belloni]

Marietje Schaake [Bram Belloni]

Dutch Liberal MEP, Marietje Schaake has called on the European Union institutions and member states not to forget the political turmoil in Egypt and coordinate better to guide the work on the ground.

Marietje Schaake is a member of the Dutch Liberal party D66 and member of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).

Given the massive challenges that Ukraine and Syria present us with, it is easy to forget about the challenges in other parts of Europe’s neighborhood, such as in Egypt. But forgetting about this crucial country and the plight of its people would be a huge mistake.

Egypt is rapidly moving back to standards familiar under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. With the election of military strongman Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to the presidency, the question is what impact of the revolution remains? Since the fall of President Morsi, the regime has met dissent or criticism with force. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned and driven underground. Activists who played a central role in the revolution against Mubarak, such as Ahmed Maher and Alaa Abdel Fattah have been imprisoned. Many fear this is only the beginning. Meanwhile, journalists, many of whom have been tried in mass trials with high sentences, as well as bloggers, fear for their safety and freedom of expression.

Egypt, as a lead nation in North-Africa and the Middle-East, still has the potential to be a vital force for political and economic stability in an increasingly volatile region. However, the current politics of polarisation and repression, coupled with huge economic problems are adding up to disaster waiting to happen. In the long run, stability will only be secured through more inclusive democracy that guarantees the rights of all Egyptians. This must go hand in hand with an ambitious economic and social reform agenda. The EU can help, but needs to come up with a clear answer to the systematic erosion of the rights and values that lay at the foundations of the revolution against Mubarak, and that has been reincarnated through Sisi. Only a stable and democratic Egypt can be an important partner for the EU.

Values, not just cynical interests, must be at the core of the European strategy towards Egypt. Human rights and fundamental freedoms must be guiding principles in all foreign policy. With demographic shifts towards a younger generation, protecting and advancing their rights, freedoms and opportunities is in our shared interest too. We need leadership from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her successor to pull the member states together in addressing the multiple problems in Egypt. In the past, the EU has often reacted too mildly or not at all to serious breaches of international agreements or of Egypt’s own constitution.

To be effective, we need to make sure we are not fragmented and weak, but that we have a common strategy among member states and in Brussels to guide the work on the ground in Egypt. Instead of being the twenty-eighth European embassy in Cairo, the European External Action Service delegation must play a coordinating role to avoid the fragmentation and duplication of the efforts by diplomats in Cairo.

Words and strong statements are only a first step. Action is also needed. Support to the government, political or financial, must be conditional on respect for human rights. The EU’s promise of “more for more” (more aid and trade in return for reforms towards democracy and human right) must be given more meaning.

The United States renewed its military aid to Egypt on the day before the unfair verdict was handed down to the 20 journalists. Did they miss an opportunity to address human rights in parallel with the military deal?

Clearly, we cannot let illusions of stability in the short term, get in the way of democratization and more freedom for the Egyptian people in the long term. From education to women’s rights, from pluralism to fostering entrepreneurship, there is much to be improved in Egypt. We must make clear that human rights are, and remain, at the top of the European agenda. The EU must also use its economic weight to achieve foreign policy goals.

However important, we must not allow the focus on crises in Syria, Ukraine and Iraq to eclipse the multiple problems in Egypt. The EU must play a leading role in engaging the Egyptian regime as well as in working with the business community and civil society towards growth and development in Egypt. We need to invest in a better future for the Egyptian people, based on more democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

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