Friday

26th May 2017

EU 'troubled' by Egypt, but will keep paying aid

  • The streets of Cairo have been filled with thousands of democracy protesters (Photo: Sarah Carr)

The European Union has described repression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt as "deeply troubling" and called on the regime to find a "peaceful way" to respond to the protests.

Speaking of "profound concern" at reports of violence in the country, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Friday (28 January): "The continued use of force against demonstrators by police and state security forces is deeply troubling."

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"In order to avoid further deterioration of the situation in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and to avoid more casualties, I reiterate my call on all parties to exercise restraint and calm and I urge the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all peaceful demonstrators from detention."

Ms Ashton and the union's 27 foreign ministers will discuss the events at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.

Ms Ashton's comments follow a day of escalating clashes between police and thousands of protesters across the country. Media on the ground describe the security response to be heavy-handed, with reports early on Friday evening of gunfire and use of helicopters against the crowds.

Earlier in the day, military vehicles were deployed on the streets of Cairo, amid barrages of tear gas, water cannon and rubber-tipped steel bullets.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former UN weapons inspector Mohammend ElBaradei joined the protests, but, according to some reports, has since been placed under house arrest. All internet access is down and a curfew originally announced for Cairo, Alexandria and Suez was late extended throughout the country.

Protesters are ignoring the order, however.

Following news of the curfew, demonstrators set fire to the headquarters of the ruling National Democracy Party in the capital, with branch offices of the party elsewhere set alight or attacked, according to Al Arabyia.

Mixed reports indicate security forces in some areas sided with protesters and exchanged shirts, but that police clashed with the army in others.

Stability

UK foreign secretary William Hague urged authorities not to "suppress people's right to freedom of expression" and called on all sides to "refrain from violence". "I think it is important to recognise that the people involved have legitimate grievances - economic grievances and political grievances - and it is very important for the authorities to respond positively to that," he said.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt placed the emphasis on "stability" in a tweet issued in the early evening: "Tension very clearly increasing in Egypt. Dramatic pictures from Cairo. Hope there will be a political opening that brings stability."

Meanwhile, Tony Blair, former UK prime minister and envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East - comprising the EU, the US, Russia and the United Nations - warned of the danger of "extremists" taking advantage of the situation. "The danger is that when you open up a vacuum, anything can happen," he told the BBC.

Liberals in the European Parliament however were unimpressed with the EU's stance. Llberal leader Guy Verhofstadt compared the events of Egypt and Tunisia in recent days to the overthrow of eastern European Communism in 1989, while Edward McMillan-Scott, a vice-president of the chamber said: "The European Union must get off the fence and support the nascent shoots of freedom before they are snuffed out."

Across the Atlantic, US secretary of state Hilary Clinton appeared to signal a change in tack from the Washington's 30 years of support for Mr Mubarak.

"We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protesters, and we call on the Egyptian goverment to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces," she said. "We support the universal human rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of speech, of association, and of assembly."

Nevertheless, Ms Clinton made it clear that she hoped Mr Mubarak would move towards political reforms lest the regime be toppled by protesters in the way that the government of former Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was last week.

No suspension of military aid

Earlier in the day however, assistant secretary of state for public affairs Philip J Crowley rejected using the US' massive $1.3 billion annual aid to the country as leverage to pressure the government to back off.

"You're casting this in zero-sum terms and I reject that. We respect what Egypt contributes to the region. It's a stabilising force. It has made it's peace with Israel," he told the Al Jazzera news agency.

The EU is also a major donor to Egypt, with €449 million in the Egypt kitty for the next two years.

EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic also rejected using aid to twist the arm of the regime. "Suspension of aid is slightly too premature. We are studying what actions can be taken but we say what we have always said, which is that actions should not target the population," she told EUobserver.

Some of the weapons and vehicles such as helicopters, tanks and anti-riot trucks that may be used against the Egyptian people are sourced from the US and EU. US weapon sales to the country include Black Hawk helicopters, Abrams tanks and Humvees, while Egyptian anti-riot vans are supplied by Italy's Iveco SpA.

According to EUobserver research based on bloc's most recent ledger of foreign weapons sales, 18 EU member states sold a total of €75.7 million worth of arms to Egypt in 2009.

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