If the British vote for Brexit dealt a blow to the European Union, one must note that it has been a while since the EU was in crisis. The European Union has been incapable of affirming itself autonomously on the international scene, while at the same time, it has imposed on the people of the 28 member states austere neoliberal policies that they have rejected.
The European Union’s position vis-a-vis the uprisings that have shaken the Arab world, particularly Egypt, since 2011 is proof of a certain faint-heartedness toward the international scene, despite the important resources that it has allocated to support the countries of the South.
For decades, the European Union shut its eyes to the violations of the regimes governing the south of the Mediterranean, praising the political economies led by Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia with the pretext that democracy wasn’t a timely need.
But the Arab uprisings provoked a form of self-criticism.
In a well-known conference that took place at the Institut du Monde Arabe on April 16, 2011, Alain Juppé, then the French minister of foreign affairs and now a presidential candidate, said, “We should acknowledge it: this ‘spring’ was a surprise for us all. For a long time we thought that the authoritarian regimes are the last defense we have against extremism in the Arab world. For too long, we flagged Islamist threats to justify a certain indulgence in our respect for governments that ridicule freedom and brake their country’s development.”
He added that it was necessary to “change our perception of the Arab world. We, the French, thought we knew these societies with which we have old and solid bonds. But the Arab Spring caught us off-guard and showed us that we are unaware of entire sectors. We need the vision of artists and students. We need the vision of bloggers, of those who say no, and of new emerging actors.”
In March through May 2011, the European Union started to seek the vision of other actors with a focus on two priorities: institutional reform and socio-economic development. Funding was based on the principle of “more for more” — the more engaged a country is on the pathway of political and institutional modernization, the more significant the funding they will receive. After the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt, France affirmed its desire to support an inclusive political process, one that would implicitly include the main political player in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood.
What remains of this today?
Not much, if we believe this image: French President Francois Hollande as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s guest of honor attending the August 2015 inauguration of the new Suez Canal, while the first Rafale planes delivered by Paris stream colorfully in the air above their heads. In the same row, a couple of seats further, sits the Sudanese president, accused by the International Criminal Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
How to justify these good relations with a regime that shut down all real and truthful opposition? “We want to make sure Egypt can defend itself against terrorism,” is Hollande’s answer. It is difficult to understand how Rafale jets or frigates allow Egypt to fight terrorism. What is sure, however, is that the armored vehicles supplied by Renault serve to quell peaceful protests, which violates the August 23, 2013 European Union resolution to suspend the delivery of arms that could be used for internal repression. To justify their position, the French authorities put forward the necessity of enabling the police to ensure “a democratic way of managing crowds,” an argument that recalls the one put forward by Minister of Foreign Affairs Michele Alliot-Marie to explain the dispatching of tear gas grenades to Ben Ali’s police in Tunisia in January 2011.
France is not the only European country to take this track, putting its economic interests above the principles it pretends to defend. Along with Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was one of the first European leaders to receive Sisi. He commended the “strategic partnership” between Italy and Egypt, and declared in 2015 that Sisi was “a great leader” with whom he was “proud to be a friend.” A few weeks later, in August 2015 the Italian enterprise ENI announced the discovery of an important gas field in Egypt. The recent death of Italian citizen Giulio Regeni in Cairo, whose body was found bearing signs of torture, hasn’t seemed to change Renzi’s choices, despite the popular mobilization in Italy calling for justice for Regeni. What is a student’s blood worth compared to the immense profits that Rome awaits from the discoveries of its companies?
Germany, on the other hand, described the army’s power grab on July 3, 2013 as a coup. But this position was rapidly forgotten when German Minister of Economy and Social Democratic Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said during his official visit to Egypt in April 2016: “I think that you have an impressive president.” Some months earlier, on June 3, 2015, this “impressive president” was received by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at a time when Bundestag President Norbert Lammert refused to see him. The online version of the weekly Spiegel magazine denounced the “betrayal of the values and the interests of Germany for a contract of a few billions, in reference to an agreement signed with Siemens. This invitation legitimizes a leader who governs Egypt even more brutally than Hosni Mubarak.” Sisi’s declaration during his visit that God created him “like a doctor to diagnose [and cure] the problems of the country” provoked a number of sniggers in German media and beyond.
By now, it is understood that a number of European states are ready to turn the page on the Arab Spring. But different reasons explain Europe’s choice to return to the old state of affairs from before 2011, with the theory that the alternatives in the region come down to military dictatorship or Islamists rising to power. At a time when the war against terrorism is in full swing, and when the Islamic State presents a real danger, the Egyptian authorities’ discourse on the terrorism they confront is heard with an attentive ear in Europe. The idea of a third democratic route has disappeared, all while modern history has shown that dictatorial regimes feed terrorist groups.
We should add another explanation internal to the European context: a battle led against Muslim extremism. An Islamophobic discourse dominates the media and the political leaders of the old continent. It is not surprising that the statements of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on the imperative need to “fight the discourse of the Muslim Brothers” in France was made in February 2015, a few days before the announcement of the Rafale arms contract with Egypt. At a time when he confirms that the next presidential election of May 2017 will focus on the question of values and identity, and when he calls on Europe to stand up against “Islamist fascism,” he wants to unconditionally support all those who fight Islamism, be it Egypt or Israel.
The European Union as an institution has abandoned the “inclusive dialogue” that it advocated for in Egypt. Its elections observation missions ended with its recognition of the results of the presidential elections in May 2014 and the parliamentary elections in December 2015. The union also declared that the roadmap set out by the Egyptian authorities after July 3, 2013 was respected. The EU signed a programs contract for the period 2014-2016 and continues to allocate more than 100 million euros of financial assistance every year to Egypt. Most of these programs target socio-economic sectors.
Meanwhile, following the example of the United States, the EU did not disburse its budgeting aid, citing technical or institutional issues, such as the macroeconomic context, the budget’s opacity and corruption. But it did so without completely withdrawing financing (250 million euros in total) — it simply extended the deadline of its execution. Suspended since the Arab revolutions, even the subcommittees in charge of discussing all the sectors of the Agreement of the EU-Egypt Association resumed in 2015.
In 2016, after the review of the European Neighborhood policy, the EU and Egypt discussed new partnership priorities to replace an EU-Egypt action plan that will expire in December 2016. The sensitive point remaining in the negotiation concerns the question of civil society. The EU wants civil society to remain free and diverse, while Egypt insists on state control, especially over organizations that are financed by external actors or foreign institutions. Cairo has been leading a real offensive against local and foreign nongovernmental organizations: NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights, which were operating during the time of former President Mohamed Morsi, had to close their offices. A number of Egyptian organizations have been shuttered. This point constitutes the last obstacle to the holding of a Council of Association meeting where the EU and Egypt would discuss the general framework of their cooperation, which hasn’t taken place since 2010. Egypt has a lot to expect from this council, particularly a more significant participation in the European Program of Research and Development, called Horizon 2020.
The Council remains divided on the position to adopt with Egypt, a position that wouldn’t seem to make any concessions on the autonomy and freedom of NGOs. If Cyprus, Spain, France and Greece are unconditionally in favor of resuming the association, adopting new resolutions and, most notably, a high-level dialogue on the struggle against terrorism, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Slovenia and the Scandinavian countries appear to be more reserved, particularly with regards to the human rights situation.
From this perspective, the Brexit vote isn’t favorable to the governments that assert that the European Union can’t be content with a “mercantile” policy and be in violation of the democratic principles it claims to be defending.