Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Rules of engagement

Dina Ezzat on Cairo’s efforts to maintain relations with Europe

Al-Sisi and Merkel
Al-Sisi and Merkel

On Monday President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi joined Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of nine African states for the G20 Africa Development summit in Berlin.

The summit’s main focus was the Compact with Africa development initiative.

“We need an initiative that does not talk about Africa but with Africa,” Merkel said at the opening of the summit which seeks to help the 10 participating African states slow migration flows by improving their economic performance.

Development, Merkel said, depends on security and providing opportunities for young people who form a majority of the populations of the participating countries — Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia.

Cairo has few illusions about the volume of financial help likely to be forthcoming from Europe’s largest economy. During a visit to Egypt earlier this year Merkel was briefed about the ambitious development plans Cairo hopes to instigate in Egypt’s poorest governorates but offered limited assistance.

Egypt, then, is clearly not hoping for the kind of generous financial package Berlin allowed Turkey in return for Ankara’s help stemming the massive flow of asylum-seekers coming to Europe from Syria. Instead, it is seeking to push forward bilateral relations, especially on the political and security fronts.

Relations between Al-Sisi and Merkel hardly got off to a flying start when Egypt’s president came to power against a backdrop of tumultuous political developments.

Officials on both sides say the two leaders are still far from overcoming their profound political differences which, from the Egyptian perspective, include Berlin’s refusal to indict all Islamist groups under the terrorist banner and isolate states such as Turkey, a key German ally, which offer them political and financial help, and from the German perspective include concerns over human rights and governance in Egypt.

A source close to the talks Al-Sisi and Merkel held on the sidelines of the summit said Germany brought up the ratification of the new NGO law which activists say restricts the role of civil society in advocating for freedoms and socio-economic rights, as well as the government’s blocking of news websites in Egypt. Al-Sisi, said the source, attributed the developments to the war on terror.

The conversation, he added, was not “confrontational” and the largest part of the meeting was taken up by discussions of German investments in Egypt, security cooperation to halt migration flows, Islamism in Germany and recent developments in Libya and Syria.

In the words of one European diplomat in Cairo: “When Al-Sisi first came to power there was a moment of hesitation given the convoluted political context. It was followed by a pause and then the decision to keep Egypt engaged in order to avoid yet another Arab country slipping into instability.”

He added that the top priority vis-à-vis Cairo for most European capitals is to help Egypt improve its economy so it can play a positive role in promoting regional stability. Even Italy, he says, which remains at loggerheads with Cairo over the brutal murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, is soft pedalling its criticisms of Egypt “despite considerable pressure from the Regeni family which has being actively lobbying the Italian media, the Italian parliament and the European parliament”.

Egyptian officials are just as realistic about Cairo’s relations with leading European capitals. Egypt wants to keep Europe engaged with an eye on continued political support for the war on terror, says one.

“This support has included the EU and leading European capitals refraining from public criticism of the new NGO law and the blocking of some websites.”

European officials do share concerns privately, he says, but they make no public fuss. “I think we could say we have reached a balancing point.”

In remarks to the press on Monday Ivan Surkos, head of the European Union delegation to Egypt, said the EU was surprised by Egypt’s decision to adopt the NGO law. It was, say Egyptian officials, a remarkably restrained statement.

“Even the choice of Surkos to head the delegation indicates the EU is actively seeking to retain its engagement with Egypt,” says a senior government official.

Egypt had lobbied to block the nomination of an alternative candidate known to adopt firmer pro-rights stances.

“The understanding and support we received on this matter from leading European capitals, including Paris, demonstrates their awareness of the crucial regional role Egypt can play,” says the official.

The French ministers of defence and foreign affairs both visited Cairo recently. And according to Egyptian officials, Sylvie Goulard and Jean-Yves Le Drian focused on developments in Libya and, to a lesser extent, Syria.

The senior official shrugs off suggestions that the absence of French, German and even Italian criticism of Cairo has to do with lucrative energy, arms and other deals which the three countries have signed with Egypt.

“The realisation in Europe is that it would be harmful for everyone should Egypt go through a long phase of instability,” he says. “We wanted to engage them on common interests, including Mediterranean stability, and they decided to go along.”

There have been signs this year of greater cooperation between Egypt and the EU, including preparations for the resumption of meetings of the Egypt EU Association Agreement Council.

A source at the EU headquarters in Brussels said that while he could not deny “recent measures taken by the Egyptian authorities” — the NGO law and the blocking of news websites — had prompted some within the EU to demand a slowdown in processing the meeting it would be equally wrong to say that there has been a change of opinion over the decision to keep Egypt engaged.

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