Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Deciphering the messages

Foreign leaders visiting Cairo have stressed, in private conversations, that stability should not be compromised by misguided domestic policies, reports Dina Ezzat

Deciphering the messages
Deciphering the messages
Al-Ahram Weekly

The series of high-level visits to Egypt that started with the arrival of the Saudi monarch, followed by the French president, US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UAE vice president, continues this week with the monarch of Bahrain.

The visits, say informed sources, were planned independently and just happened to fall on consecutive days this month.

The same sources do, however, concede that Cairo is engaged in a concerted attempt to avoid what one describes as the “long shadow” cast by the brutal murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was found tortured to death in February.

The visits are being spun in Cairo as a clear sign that the world is keen to “come to Egypt and build strong relations despite growing criticism of the regime’s human rights record”.

“At the very least, the visits disprove rumours suggesting a campaign to isolate Egypt diplomatically,” said one Egyptian diplomat. “Senior officials from overseas come to us and we agree and disagree, but that is to be expected in international relations.”

 He added, “The fact that world leaders visit a country is a sign of reassurance for potential investments. The Saudi monarch, the vice president of the UAE and the deputy chancellor of Germany were all accompanied by business delegations.”

The world has a vested interest in keeping Egypt stable, given how troubled the region is, said the diplomat.

But this is only “one part, however important, of the story,” insisted a leading European diplomat. “The stability of Egypt is not something that can be guaranteed solely by providing economic incentives. The economy is important but it is not the only factor in the equation.”

European officials who have visited Cairo, and those who have been communicating with Egyptian officials over the past few days, “have privately raised their concerns about violations of human rights in Egypt”. 

Said the diplomat, “Nobody was questioning the credibility of the disturbing accounts of human rights violations. Instead they were telling their high-level interlocutors in Cairo that Egypt’s international reputation is faced with a serious challenge, and that even if the issue can be contained on the domestic front it will not be so easily managed in the international arena.”

He continued, “The regime in Egypt may think Europe will turn a blind eye to the situation of human rights to maintain its economic interests and support a regime that has managed to keep the country stable. But what the government in Egypt needs to take into account is that there is a limit on how much European governments can ignore without being criticised in their own electorates.”

Cairo’s European visitors, say diplomats, were offered the “typical official Egyptian narrative” — that Egypt is a large and poor country and human rights and democracy are not a priority.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on Monday, one European ambassador in Cairo said the exhaustive security measures to block the “constitutional right of peaceful demonstration” revives memories of “Egypt before the January Revolution” and undermined any “confidence” the Egyptian regime still enjoys the unquestioning support of the vast majority of Egyptians.

“When you turn half of your capital into barracks and have to deploy the military, it’s hardly a sign of solid popular support,” he said.

Such concerns are not limited to European capitals. A key part of the message UAE Vice President Mohamed bin Zayed conveyed while in Cairo was that the Egyptian regime needs to be more responsive to public opinion and adopt economic and political measures that will halt the decline in its support.

The UAE was a key supporter of the political transformations led by the army following nationwide demonstrations demanding an end to the year-long rule of Mohamed Morsi.

An Abu Dhabi-based Arab diplomat told the Weekly that the visit of bin Zayed, and an earlier visit by the UAE’s intelligence chief, “reflected growing concern among the UAE’s [rulers] about the situation in Egypt”.

 The UAE, he said, is worried that the regime in Cairo is not paying enough attention to growing discontent, which is related to the economy and not just limits placed on freedoms.

“There is nothing the UAE wants more than for this regime to succeed. It has been offering economic help, aid and now investments. But the UAE is not planning on providing open-ended financial support. It wants Egypt to work on its political projections and for Egypt to once again become an attractive destination for investors and tourists.”

None of Cairo’s recent high-profile official visitors left Egypt with assurances that the regime is about to revise its political choices. What many did take away with them were question marks over the short and long-term repercussions of the decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

“Clearly, this handover is bringing Egypt considerable economic investment from the Saudis but it is also causing a big headache. We are closely monitoring the situation to see how it unfolds,” said the European ambassador on Monday afternoon, in the wake of sporadic protests against the handover.

On the same day, a government official said that while he expects the matter to “linger for a while, just like the case of the Italian, it will eventually go away and neither the West nor the Arabs believe they can afford to turn their back on Egypt”.

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