23rd Mar 2018


Mr Morsi goes to Brussels

  • Egypt's new Islamist president Mohamed Morsi makes his first visit to Brussels on Wednesday (Photo: European External Action Service)

This week’s visit by Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi to Brussels is an important opportunity for Europe to put its relationship with the new Egypt on the right footing.

Morsi, less than three months in office, has surprised by the speed with which he has consolidated his power, and begun to make good on his promise to bring Egypt back from “marginalisation” to its “natural historic role”. And Europe already has ground to make up with him.

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Given the scale of their own economic crisis, Europeans can fairly claim to have mustered a respectable first response to the Arab spring. Caught out in quiet complicity with the old autocrats Europeans had the grace to blush, move smartly to ‘the right side of history’, and promise to offer more effective support to North Africa’s transitions to democracy.

Talk of a new ‘Marshall Plan’ was always wishful thinking: but the EU and individual member states have upped their economic aid, and promised to think about more liberal trade arrangements (over 30% of Egypt’s exports come to the EU).

But Europe has not handled Egypt well. Europeans were altogether too quiet as Egypt’s interim military rulers broke their promises to ‘safeguard’ the revolution, put thousands of demonstrators through military tribunals, and eventually tried to pull off a judicial coup against the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood authorities.

It has been difficult for Europeans to accept that, given a free vote, the majority of Egyptians have voted not for the courageous young secular liberals of Tahrir Square, but for men with beards. Assurances from the Brothers that they know they must govern for all the people, and that they have no interest in upsetting Egypt’s peace with Israel, have been greeted with scepticism.

Perhaps surprisingly, the US has done better here. At the height of the July crisis between Morsi and the military, Hilary Clinton had the courage to go to Cairo and remind the military that they must get back to their barracks. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, by contrast, preferred to focus on reminding the beleaguered President of the need for ‘inclusivity’.

Europeans also have a problem understanding that they are not the only game in town. In the Brussels world view, the newly-democratic Arab states are just one part of Europe’s ‘neighbourhood’ – a collection of pale moons orbiting in Europe’s gravitational field, destined (with the aid of education and financial inducements) to become ‘more like us’.

After all, where else do they have to go? The answer, in Egypt’s case, was made clear when Morsi chose to make his first official visit outside the Middle East to Beijing. The 300m euros of aid that the EU is now offering Egypt this year and next will be welcome – but it will not give Europeans the right lecture the new authorities on how to conduct themselves.

President Morsi, in short, needs treating with respect. Under the hollowed-out Mubarak regime, his country became a back-water. Now, it is again at the centre of the Arab world – a key player on the Israel/Palestine question, on the Nile basin, and on Syria (where he has taken a notably helpful line).

Europeans should not pretend that there are not important differences between themselves and Islamist governments on issues such as the role and rights of women, and should be ready to argue such points. But the emphasis now must be not on constantly monitoring the new governments’ ‘democratic progress’ but on making them friends and partners.

The opportunities for Europe are huge: in economic terms as the closed societies that the autocrats ran become more open and dynamic; and in strategic terms, as Europe looks to re-set its relations with the Arab and wider Muslim world.

The defensive crouch (‘we must keep these teeming populations and their disturbing religion at arm’s length’) must be replaced by a more open and constructive response. Money is in short supply – but there is much else that Europeans (collectively from Brussels, and individually from national capitals, notably Paris, Rome and Madrid) could do to help, and to influence.

Security is a major headache for all the new governments in North Africa, in terms both of combating lawlessness in the Sahel and securing their southern borders, and of reforming their own security apparatuses. Greater regional integration is key here, as it is for economic development. North Africa is a vast untapped source of solar power. In these and other instances, Europeans need to engage with energy and imagination.

His hosts must ensure that Mr Morsi leaves Brussels with the sense that Europeans are on his side; that they understand the scale of the challenges he faces, and are determined to do whatever they can to help him, and other Arab democrats, succeed.

The writer is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new ECFR report, ‘A power audit of EU-North Africa relations’.

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