EU will struggle to engage in Egypt

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

Woman protesting on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt [UN Women Rights/Flickr]

Woman protesting on Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt [UN Women Rights/Flickr]

Egypt today is looking disturbingly similar to the country during its ‘Mubarak years’. But does the EU have the influence and tools to counter this? Lisa Watanabe

Lisa Watanabe is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.

Almost one year after he played a key role in the July 2013 coup that removed former President Mohammed Morsi from power, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has taken up office as Egypt’s new president. Many Egyptians are hoping that el-Sisi, the former Defence Minister and Supreme Commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces, will bring stability to the country after three years of turmoil and create the conditions for an improved economic outlook. Yet, the stability that el-Sisi appears to envision seems to portend more repression and further erosion of the democratic gains of the 2011 revolution.

Indeed, Egypt today is looking disturbingly similar to the Mubarak years. El-Sisi’s election has further increased the military’s already considerable sway. The military owns about 90 per cent of the land, and, according to some estimates, the revenues generated by its businesses account for up to 40 per cent of Egypt’s GDP. Under the new constitution, drafted following the ouster of Morsi and approved in January of this year, preserves the interests and autonomy of the military. It grants the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces final approval of appointments to the position of Minister of Defense, allows for military trials of civilians, and exempts the military budget from full parliamentary scrutiny.

Egyptians have also witnessed the initial opening of the political space that occurred after the revolution contract over the past year. The main target of the authorities’ clampdown has been the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Yet, repressive measures have also targeted the non-Islamist opposition through restrictions on the freedom of assembly and expression, which have led to arrests and disproportionate sentences. The acute polarization of society and rise in political violence resulting from such measures is unlikely to be dampened under El-Sisi. Opposition to the new authorities will not only come from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, but also from pro-democracy forces that are also losing their voice in present-day Egypt.

El-Sisi does, however, have the support of the business elite, who appear to be backing him in the hope that he will bring stability to the country and prove more favorable to their interests than Morsi. However, that support could be short-lived. The structural reforms needed to improve the long-term health of the Egyptian economy could meet with considerable opposition, not least from the military, due to its deeply entrenched economic interests. El-Sisi may attempt to co-opt the military by militarizing the state yet further, but this may further limit his room for maneouvre. For the time being, generous foreign assistance from the Gulf States has enabled economic reforms to be deferred. Indeed, ties between Egypt and several Gulf States have been strengthened over the last year.

Intensified relations with the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, stand in stark contrast to Egypt’s strained relationship with the EU. Indeed, the EU is likely to struggle to maintain its already questionable influence in Egypt. The EU has been unable to advance with the implementation of its Action Plan with Egypt, developed within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which itself was revised following the Arab uprisings with the aim of supporting the transitions. The EU is waiting to see that the road map set out following July 2013 and envisaging a new constitution, and presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, is completed in a fully inclusive manner, and that human rights and the rule of law are respected. It, nevertheless, remains committed to continued engagement in this pivotal North African state.

However, the prospects of successful engagement in Egypt look decidedly dim. Having based its revised ENP on the so-called more-for-more principle that offers more benefits – more money, more access to the EU internal market and more mobility – for more progress on democratic reforms, reinforcing political conditionality, the EU finds itself in a difficult position. Today, there appears to be limited room for promoting rights and freedoms in Egypt. Moreover, the prevailing mood in the country is not conducive to deeper ties with the EU. Instead, a desire to demonstrate independence from the West and to diversify Egypt’s foreign relations exists. With the Gulf States providing substantial, rapid and unconditional credit lines and foreign aid to Egypt, the EU’s leverage is flimsy to say the least. As long as untied Gulf funding continues to flow, the EU will struggle to incentivize democratic reforms with the comparatively meagre financial assistance it has on offer. Even deeper trade relations with the EU, something on which the EU ought to be able to capitalize as Egypt’s largest trade partner, seem to generate little interest in Cairo.

The EU’s dilemmas in Egypt raise a bigger question: Does the EU have the right tools with which to effectively support the transitions and to maintain some sort of influence in North Africa and the wider region? The Egyptian case demonstrates that not all political actors in transition states will view the EU as a model to be emulated. Indeed, the EU’s influence is likely to be highly variable. Ultimately, the EU may require a paradigm shift to successfully engage in its southern neighbourhood and the revised ENP falls well short of that, representing little more than a repackaging of an existing approach. The EU not only needs to reflect on how best to deploy its soft power tools, but also how they can be used to achieve its objectives in a region characterized by a more polycentric distribution of external influence.

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