After the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution recommending the suspension of export licenses of any equipment to Egypt that would be used for internal repression, the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry and Parliament were quick to respond, decrying an alleged infringement on the sovereignty of the state. But is that as far as the resolution’s ripple effect will spread?
Last Thursday, 558 members of the European Parliament voted in favor of the resolution, which comes as a response to the “abduction, savage torture and killing” of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni in Cairo. The European Parliament emphasized Regeni’s murder “is not an isolated accident,” but took place in the context of an increase in unlawful practices in Egypt, citing reports of torture, forced disappearances and the deaths of detainees in police custody.
Regeni’s body was found in February by the side of a road on the outskirts of Cairo in the Giza suburb of 6th of October City, showing signs of torture including cigarette burns, bruises, cuts and multiple stab wounds. The 28-year-old went missing on January 25, 2016 — the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution — after he was reportedly headed to the downtown Cairo district of Bab al-Louq near Tahrir Square.
Schams El-Ghoneimi, foreign policy adviser at the EU Parliament on the Middle East, said that while the EU Parliament doesn’t directly dictate EU foreign policy, it does have a number of powerful tools to influence it. Parliament reflects public opinion from across 28 EU countries, he explains.
“When the elected representatives of 500 million citizens overwhelmingly vote in favor of a friendly but frank warning to Egypt’s authorities on human rights, it means Europeans want this,” he tells Mada Masr.
Ghoneimi cites meetings between the secretary-generals of the Arab League, both Amr Moussa and Nabil al-Araby, and members of the EU Parliament — specifically the Foreign Affairs Committee Members. “[They] came and answered tough questions — or tried to avoid them,” he says.
Ghoneimi also believes that since the Parliament’s legislative powers set the rules for the EU market, it impacts the Arab world. He explains that Google, Microsoft and YouTube all must comply with EU law.
“The important US-EU Free Trade Agreement (TTIP) needs to be accepted by the European Parliament first,” he explains. “Likewise if Egypt wants to have any important trade agreement with the EU.”
“Hearing the opinion of EU citizens matters in foreign affairs,” Ghoneimi concludes. However, it is ultimately up to the member states to implement the resolution, he adds.
“But the pressure is there. Their governments depend on public opinion to remain in power,” he says. “Europe is, like the US, the Arab world and Russia, facing serious challenges to its own democratic principles, and a strong progressive voice in the EU is very important to protect Europe’s endangered democratic values.”
This is not the first motion proposed by the EU Parliament against the Egyptian government. On July 17, 2015, it urged member states to impose a wide ban on the export of surveillance technology to Egypt on the grounds that it could be used to spy on citizens. The ban would be in compliance with the Wassenaar Arrangement on the export of military aid and security equipment that could be used to breach basic rights, the resolution noted.
Kristina Kausch, a nonresident associate at Carnegie Europe with a focus on Europe’s relations with the Middle East and North Africa, recognizes the weight of the resolution, but says that concrete follow-up is unlikely.
The EU Parliament acts as a moral compass for the member countries, putting out strong statements for them, she says. “However, I don’t think the suspension of military aid that is recommended will be adopted,” Kausch tells Mada Masr. “I don’t even think the MPs expected it to be adopted when they issued it.”
The resolution expresses views that many people in the member state governments would agree with, but would not necessarily express, according to Kausch.
“Member states will choose to set priorities differently,” she says. “They will choose to prioritize Egypt’s security role in the region over making strong statements.”
Still, Kausch believes the resolution is a step in the right direction, noting that the document’s language was much stronger than in similar past resolutions, and that it cites other human rights abuses and not just the Regeni case.
The European Parliament referred to thousands of “prisoners of conscience” jailed for exercising their basic rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including detainees Mahienour al-Massry, Alaa Abd El Fattah, Aya Hegazy, Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein, Ahmed Saeed, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel. It also criticized travel bans issued against many human rights defenders, including Hossam Bahgat, Gamal Eid, Hossam Eddin Ali, Esraa Abdel Fattah, Omar Hazek and Mohamed Lotfi. The motion further cited deteriorating media and press freedoms, a crackdown on civil society organizations, mass death sentences issued for supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and torture in police detention and prisons.
The resolution is also something human rights lobbyists can use to try and press for governments abroad to put pressure on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kausch says, believing that the resolution will highlight the fact that Sisi’s government is not what it claims to be.
“This is one step in an ongoing process. Little by little, international opinion on Sisi is changing,” she asserts.
Kausch juxtaposes the current view of Sisi to a few years ago when he was elected president by an overwhelming majority, when “everyone in Egypt and abroad was glad that the Muslim Brotherhood was gone, and was saying, ‘let’s see if Sisi can deliver on his promises’.”
“That sense in the international community is evaporating, and he is starting to be seen as just another oppressor,” claims Kausch. “The resolution is an important step in forging that image.”
A delegation from the Egyptian Parliament is gearing up for a trip to Brussels to meet with the EU Parliament in light of the recent resolution.
In a phone interview on TV show “Al-Qahera al-Youm” (Cairo Today), aired on the Orbit satellite channel, MP Alaa Wali said the delegation will include MPs who hold master’s and PhD degrees from Europe so they are able to address EU Parliament members.
However, Kausch says that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s and Parliament’s angered reactions were expected.
“I’m sure the Sisi government is annoyed by it,” she says. “But every time a statement like this is issued, these mechanisms unfold, but don’t mean much.”