Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Cautious support

Will the West offer the support Egypt needs at this month’s economic conference? Dina Ezzat looks for answers

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Al-Ahram Weekly

High-profile Western participation at the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) is expected, with several prime ministers, foreign and finance ministers heading their delegations to the inaugural session.

Some are scheduled to have one-on-one meetings with either President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi or Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab, where they will discuss issues beyond the scope of the economic projects the government will be offering at the EEDC.

Cairo-based Western diplomats say their delegations to the conference will deliver a clear message: the West wants to offer Egypt political support and is happy to consider economic cooperation.

“We have to show political support because of two things: the crucial role Egypt should always play in the Arab world, the Middle East as a whole and in Africa, and because we realise that Egypt — despite the many reservations we share with our Egyptian friends about human rights — faces a serious challenge defeating militant radical groups,” said a European ambassador in Cairo.

The success of the Egyptian authorities in attending to the risks “to stability and security” posed by radical militant groups — “for us, this is not about all of political Islam” — is essential not just to Egypt but for the entire region.

“It is becoming almost a cliché but, when all is said and done, Egypt is one of very few stable countries in the region. While building on this stability will require reforms, we don’t want to see the current level of stability in Egypt challenged,” she said.

According to another European ambassador, the West, and especially southern European states, are unwilling to take any chances on Egypt failing since this would compromise “wider regional stability and is harmful for the stability of the Mediterranean at large, given the existing situation in Libya, Syria and Lebanon.”

But will this translate into the levels of investment the government is seeking to generate?

The Egyptian authorities, say Western diplomats, are hoping for investments large enough to boost the Egyptian economy. But they warn against being overly optimistic.

“The potentials are there and they are far from negligible. Egypt has a lot to offer investors, but for the time being they remain cautious and we cannot honestly advise them to abandon that caution,” says the head of the economic section of one key Western embassy.

The caution is fuelled by recurrent violence. “I know that these are mostly small acts and by and large Egypt is stable,” he says, adding that the foreign community in Egypt is “safe and sound.”

“As expats in Egypt, we go about our daily lives unattended by security personnel and have been doing fine, a clear indication that the security rating of this country is good.”

But there are no guarantees that the kind of “brutal bloody attacks that we have seen in Sinai will continue to be contained there.”

He continues, “It is unlikely — this is my assessment, and the assessment of many of my colleagues who work in Egypt — that something big could happen in say Cairo or Alexandria. It is also our assessment that we will see many more major attacks in Sinai.”

He believes that if there is a significant decline in the number of attacks over the next six months investors will revise their positions towards Egypt.

“These are mostly desperate acts, unlikely to cause serious damage but done to contribute to the problems of the authorities and to create the image of a weak state,” says the head of the political section in the embassy of a leading Asian state.

And it will be hard to move beyond these attacks, in the absence of a political package that addresses the “sense of vendetta” that prompts them.

He concedes that any political inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood remains unlikely for the time being, and it will take “another year or so” before things start to change on this front. “But what we have been noticing recently, and what we have been told by our Egyptian friends, is that there is a tendency to narrow the scope of security action in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I think this could help ease tension and create a more positive impression about the future political line of the government and the president.”

The inclusion of non-violent Islamists in the political process remains important, say diplomats who spoke to the Weekly. They also argue for the inclusion of other political forces.

In many influential capitals, Egypt’s the latest delay in holding long overdue parliamentary elections has not gone down well.

“We are faced with a situation that we have to make the best of. If we were to conclude that the Egyptian executive is deliberately acting to monopolise decision-making and delay the election of a parliament — even though we have many questions about the political environment in which the elections will take place — then we would have to advise against cooperation with Egypt, and this will not to help with stability,” said a senior European official during a recent visit to Cairo.

For now, she added, Europe has opted to offer gradual economic support and cautious political advice.

Economic coordination meetings between the European Union and Egypt have resumed, ending a three-year suspension. The consultations, say Egyptian officials, provide an opportunity to promote future cooperation. But to move forward many European diplomats insist it is necessary for Egypt to send some positive political signals.

The removal of the minister of interior over the weekend is being viewed as a positive sign in many Western capitals. But what is really needed, they say, is a change in policies rather than personnel.

The US, along with many other Western states, wants to see changes to the controversial demonstration law.

“The president is determined to amend the law,” says an informed political figure. “He was about to announce the changes a few months ago but the move was stymied by the objection of security officials. Now we hope to see the necessary amendments within a few months.”

Once the law is amended the way will be open for the president to free many of those sentenced to jail terms for violating the protest law.

“I think it safe to say that we will see a more nuanced political and security approach towards the opposition,” he says, adding that this will help reassure potential investors.

“The president is convinced that fixing the economy is a priority and, with the expected decline of Gulf support, attention is now being dedicated to doing what it takes to attract direct foreign investments of all types.”

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