21st Mar 2018


EU and Egypt: neighbourhood policy in coma

  • The reviewed European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2011 stressed the role of civil society bringing about deep and sustainable democracy (Photo: Globovision)

Europe cannot stand around cross-armed when Egypt’s new ruler is about to strike the final blow to independent civil society.

As Monday (10 November) is the last day Egyptian NGOs have to register with the ministry of social affairs, there is cause for extreme concern that tomorrow, the few remaining sites for free and critical debate in Egypt might simply disappear.

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In its mandate, the newly-appointed European Commission has promised to promote stability at Europe’s borders and help neighbouring countries develop stable democratic institutions and become more prosperous.

Egypt is a crucial test of whether this EU commission will follow through on its commitment. If president Sisi were allowed to extinguish the last beacons of free expression in Egypt, Europe would have but admit total impotence of its revised neighbourhood policy.

We all have vivid recollections of the Egyptian revolution that ousted president Mubarak and put an end to decades of dictatorship, filling the squares of Egypt and the region with hope for dignity, democracy and human rights.

For the European Union (EU), it was a wake-up call that its policy towards its southern neighbours that favoured the short-term stability of the autocratic states at the expense of their people was in a dire need of review.

Lip service to human rights

In the spring of 2011, the EU then adopted a ‘'renewed" European Nighbourhood Policy (ENP) championing support to civil society as a barrier against authoritarianism, as well as "deep democracy" based on free and fair elections, freedom of association, expression and assembly, and the rule of law.

Following the ousting of president Morsi, and under the condoning eyes of some EU leaders, Egypt’s new rulers have gone unhindered in their liberticidal streak. They systematically stifled dissent and consolidated their grip on power, with the respect for basic human rights as their first victim.

Under Sisi, the country has witnessed death sentences levelled en masse in summary trials lacking the most basic standards of fairness, arbitrary arrests of thousands democracy activists and government critics, including human rights defenders, the detention of thousands solely for being members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The world has watched with awe as the security forces deployed lethal force to disperse peaceful protests, resulting in tragic deaths of more than a thousand Egyptian citizens.

In the face of these events, how can one deny the devastating effect on the credibility of the EU and its member states if they returned to ‘business as usual’ in their relations with their southern neighbours prior to the Egyptian revolution?

It would be indeed be a shame if the EU went back to prioritising short-term stability while paying lip service to human rights, democracy and the well-being of the Egyptian people.

Four years on, Egypt has come full circle and so has the EU’s ‘’renewed’’ neighbourhood policy.

Control of NGOs

The Egyptian regime's is now moving towards eradicating dissent, backed up by a very repressive law from the Hosni Mubarak era that gives authorities sweeping powers to control the work of non-governmental organisations.

Failing to comply, organisations risk hefty criminal charges, including prison sentences. Moreover, the authorities have recently made the reception of foreign funding punishable by life sentences.

In post-revolution Egypt, civil society is facing a dilemma; going back to the Mubarak era or going to prison.

These moves are not only meant to muzzle civil society, but also further undermine any public confidence in EU policies.

Indeed, the EU is facing a brazen defiance of its policies by a central player and an ally in the Arab World, and its support of the country’s civil society, one of the pillars of its ENP policy, has been made difficult or even illegal.

Yet, if the EU is to salvage its shattered credibility in the region, its top leaders need to firmly stand by Egypt’s civil society and send a clear message to the Egyptian authorities.

The EU should not be a helpless beholder witnessing the authoritarian drift of its neighbour. Along with the US, it’s the main ally of Egypt and can make its political and financial support to Egypt conditional on its progress towards a ‘deep democracy’ and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Whether and when EU policy makers will eventually shake off the ENP from its coma, only time will tell.

Michel Tubiana i president of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.


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