News | Participation / Civil Rights - North Africa - Europa global - Middle East - COP27 “Quiet Diplomacy” in Egypt Has Failed

The UN was called upon to increase pressure on Egypt for its human rights crimes, but Europe continues to support Al-Sisi’s regime at any cost


[Translate to en:] Menschen stehen mit Schildern und demonstrieren. Auf dem Schild im Vordergrund steht "Sisi not welcome. Stop the repression in Egypt".
A protest against Al-Sisi during his visit to London, 2015. CC BY-SA 2.0, Alisdare Hickson

In an open letter, 175 European parliamentarians call on the UN Human Rights Council to increase pressure on Egypt’s military regime for its systematic human rights crimes by pushing for tangible measures, and to create a monitoring and reporting mechanism for Egypt at the UN level. Whether such a tool can persuade the regime to noticeably change course is more than questionable. But multilateral pressure is needed to prevent the imminent destruction of the last remnants of the once vibrant civil society in the country. The initiative from Europe’s parliaments is a hesitant cross-party signal, but so far no more than a hollow promise.

Sofian Philip Naceur is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office and works as a freelance journalist.

Systematic torture in police custody, the use of military and emergency courts, as well as severe prison sentences and other reprisals against journalists and opposition figures and their families: while independent media and civil society are constantly muzzled and existentially threatened, the authoritarian regime of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi continues to mercilessly crack down on any form of free speech critical of the government — and all this without any serious complaints from Berlin, Paris, or Washington.

Since Al-Sisi successfully rehabilitated his regime on the international stage, European and North American governments once again consider Egypt a key partner, as they had already done in the past during the era of long-serving ruler Hosni Mubarak. Criticism of the countless human rights violations committed by Egyptian authorities is voiced only behind closed doors or, if at all, very cautiously, so as not to alienate the supposed guarantor of stability in the region.

In Europe’s parliaments, however, tentative resistance is stirring against the silence of their officials and their almost unconditional support for the Cairo regime. 175 members of the EU Parliament and several national European parliaments have jointly signed an open letter to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) published in early February, calling for the UN body and the foreign ministers of its member states to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism for Egypt at the Council’s upcoming session in March, and thus finally put Cairo under more tangible pressure. Such a step is “long overdue”, the letter reads.

Yet the initiative is not the first attempt from the ranks of European parliaments to create awareness about Egypt’s disastrous human rights record, and to urge European states to stop acquiescing to Al-Sisi’s absolutist policies. After the EU Parliament had already passed a resolution on the human rights crisis in Egypt in 2020, eight members of Die Linke in the German Bundestag and the EU Parliament launched a solidarity campaign in January 2021 for activists incarcerated in Egypt.

These and prior initiatives have nevertheless all failed to trigger even the slightest change of course in dealing with Egypt. Yet the recently published letter is much more sharply worded and calls for multilateral action. It thus expresses the recognition that bilateral action has so far remained virtually without consequences and hence places its bets on a multilateral initiative within the framework of the UN.

Open Letter Does Not Mince Words

“Since the 2013 ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian authorities have been ruling the country with an iron fist, brutally and systematically repressing all forms of dissent and severely curtailing civic space”, the letter says. The use of torture by Egyptian police and intelligence agencies is said to be rampant and a systematic practice while the country “became the world’s third top executioner, with 107 recorded executions” in 2020 alone.

“Amid severe restrictions and intimidations, local and international organizations continue to document a wide range of human rights abuses by Egyptian authorities, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, the arbitrary detention of women on ‘morality’ grounds, the trial of children along with adults, the continued crackdown on members of the LGBTI community, and the arrest and prosecution of members of religious minorities over blasphemy charges.”

However, the international community has persistently failed to take any meaningful action to address Egypt’s human rights crisis, according to the letter. “This failure, along with the continued support to the Egyptian government and reluctance to even speak up against pervasive abuses has only deepened the Egyptian authorities’ sense of impunity.”

Appeal to Governing Parties

Since the letter was signed by Green, Social Democratic, left-wing, and liberal parliamentarians, it can also be understood as an unusually upfront appeal to those parties that have approved arms exports to Egypt in recent years and supported Al-Sisi politically. Therefore, Özlem Demirel, MEP for Die Linke, hopes that stronger pressure will now be exerted on the governments from within the parties. “I am pleased that many of my Social Democratic and Green colleagues have signed the letter, but in recent years they have repeatedly remained silent when their own ministers for foreign and economic affairs have maintained cooperation with or arms exports to the Egyptian regime”, Demirel says.

Meanwhile, the German Social Democrats (SPD) have been part of the federal government over the past eight years, went along with all arms exports to Egypt, and largely ignored the sometimes fierce public criticism of such exports. Immediately prior to the recent change of government in Berlin, the Federal Security Council, which is responsible for approving arms exports, gave the green light for the export of three MEKO A-200 frigates from the German arms dealer ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) and 16 air defence systems from the South German company Diehl Defence to Egypt, together worth more than 4 billion euro.

By 29 November 2021, arms exports to Egypt stood at “only” 0.18 billion. After this last-minute manoeuvre of Angela Merkel’s outgoing government, this figure rose to  4.34 billion euro virtually overnight — a new all-time record.

The Time of “Quiet Diplomacy” Must Be Over

Parliamentarians in France, Italy, or Spain also used the letter as an opportunity to slam the Egypt policies of their respective governments. Spain’s Social Democrat-led government is – like the EU – “yet another accomplice of the Egyptian regime”, Spanish left-wing politician and MEP, Miguel Urbàn Crespo, told the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

“In December 2021, Pedro Sánchez became the first Spanish Prime Minister to visit Egypt since 2009. In his appearance with Al-Sisi, Sánchez made no mention of human rights and assured that the two countries will strengthen their trade relations after his visit”, Urbán Crespo says.

However, since Al-Sisi came to power in 2013, “Egypt has become a human rights black hole”, he explained, and therefore calls for finally abandoning the policy of “quiet diplomacy” that has been pursued for years. Egyptian and international human rights organizations had already demanding this in the past, but to no avail. Meanwhile, in Spain and Germany, as well as in France and in the United States, whose governments are just as firmly backing Al-Sisi, such demands continue to be met with silence.

Instead, Paris has been concluding seemingly countless multi-billion-euro arms deals with Cairo for years, and French President Emmanuel Macron no longer even pretends to care about human rights crimes committed by Egyptian authorities. The US government is likewise giving Egypt’s military regime plenty of leeway. Although Washington withheld 130 million dollars in military aid to Egypt in September 2021 and tied its release to conditions related to human rights, it signed off on a  2.5-billion arms deal for fighter jets and radar systems for the Egyptian regime only months later.

Even if withholding a small portion of the US military aid to Egypt for human rights related reasons hardly appears to be crucial, Egypt’s military regime certainly perceives such measures as political messages, especially at a multilateral level.

Multilateral Action as the Last Hope

In this sense, Cairo had responded sensitively to the adoption of a declaration at the last UNHRC session in 2021, in which dozens of states condemned Egypt for its human rights crimes, and even introduced cosmetic measures. The “National Human Rights Strategy” launched by President Al-Sisi that same year is less of an effective tool and more a PR stunt, but it shows that Egypt takes the UN body seriously.

The UNHRC’s 2021 declaration was an important precedent, emphasizes the Director of the Geneva office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Jeremie Smith. “This was the first time in seven years states jointly addressed Egypt’s human rights crisis at the UN. This helped to ensure the release of several political prisoners.” But a follow-up is required to protect thousands more who continue to struggle for basic rights, Smith says.

Meanwhile, it remains disputed how effective such a UN monitoring tool, called for by countless human rights groups and now also MEPs, can really be. As Smith explains, this term refers to “a generic expression used for a wide range of monitoring and accountability tools that can be set up by the UNHRC.” This kind of mechanism, usually established for one year, can be created by a resolution to be presented in the UNHRC and after being approved by a majority vote, the CIHRS representative says.

For Egypt, no such tool currently exists that would allow the UN to more effectively confront the Cairo government over its systematic violations of international human rights conventions. The UNHRC session in March might be one of the last opportunities to counter the looming destruction of the last remnants of the once vibrant and diverse civil society in the country. And time is running out. While even heavyweights of Egyptian civil society, such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) in January, have already ceased their work due to ongoing reprisals and intimidation by Egyptian police and intelligence agencies, countless other human rights groups are threatened with dissolution due to the regulations of Egypt’s new restrictive NGO law.

The recent one-year extension of the deadline for registration under the law does little to change this. Against this background, the stakes are high, Smith explains. “If states fail to act, independent civil society in Egypt may be eradicated”, he warns.