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The new EU–Egypt deal is neocolonialism at its best — and signals complicity in Israel’s destruction of Gaza


Various European heads of state, Ursula von der Leyen, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at a diplomatic meeting in Cairo, 17 March 2024.
Various European heads of state, Ursula von der Leyen, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at a diplomatic meeting in Cairo, 17 March 2024. Photo: IMAGO / Photo News

The EU is once again accelerating the externalization and tightening of its notorious border control regime. The “reform” of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), recently approved by the EU Parliament after years of negotiations and lobbying by liberal politicians across Europe, is not only another nail in the coffin of the right of asylum and protection, but a renewed framework for the further externalization of migration-related repression beyond the EU’s external borders. Yet only weeks prior to the final vote on CEAS, European border regime architects succeeded in inking another controversial migration deal with Egypt — a move with far-reaching consequences for migrants, people on the move, and those fleeing war, famine, or genocide.

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

Overlooking the iron-fisted rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a whopping five European leaders travelled to Cairo in March 2024 to sign the partnership agreement. After Tunisia and Mauretania, this is the third such deal between the EU and a North African state since last summer. Together, the deals and the CEAS are expected to effectively abolish the right of asylum in the EU while facilitating the repressive containment of any kind of migration in North African states notorious for systematic human rights abuses.

As part of the EU–Egypt deal, Brussels has pledged a total of 7.4 billion euro in the form of loans and grants to Egypt, a country once again on the verge of economic and monetary collapse. Two-hundred million of those funds are earmarked for training and equipment related to border control (known today as “border management”, partly thanks to ICMPD, a Vienna-based lobby association for the externalization of border violence) to be granted to Egyptian police and border control authorities. More than half of the funds are tied to the implementation of a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which agreed to provide the Egyptian economy with billions in additional loans.

Europe is thus once again exploiting a global emergency — this time, Israel’s six-month assault on Gaza and the West Bank — and the structural deficiencies of a peripheral economy to keep a useful military-run police state alive and supply it with the means to consolidate its dictatorial rule.

Also involved in this large-scale stabilization program for the Egyptian economy, dependent on periodic external aid since the 1970s, is the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi and Cairo announced a 35-billion-dollar real estate deal back in March, immediately injecting fresh funds into Egypt and raising hopes for billions in further inflows and job creation in the long term.

Similar promises of overblown real estate megaprojects have issued from Egyptian government for years — Egypt’s new administrative capital is just the tip of the iceberg. Yet, such projects can in no way serve as the foundation of an economy dependent on external injections, as they primarily generate objects for speculation. Apart from nurturing a crony class of regime-affiliated venture capitalists, the sole purpose of these projects is to plug the structural deficits in Egypt’s foreign trade and currency balance in the short or medium term at best. The latest luxury resort on Egypt’s north coast is likely to serve precisely this purpose — that is, until the next dollar crisis hits.

Too Big to Fail

The immediate reason behind this veritable run on the Ittihadeya presidential palace in eastern Cairo was to swiftly ensure Egypt’s solvency and provide fresh funds for the regime’s economic policies, effectively geared towards the redistribution of wealth upwards. Also on the agenda was the expansion of migration control in Egypt and along its external borders.

Europe’s charm offensive in Cairo was justifiably read as a response to the spike in irregular arrivals of Egyptians in the EU. Egyptians were the leading nationality of irregular arrivals in Italy in 2022 — a development that set alarm bells ringing in Brussels, Rome, and Berlin. Nevertheless, the most important driver of the recent EU leaders’ visit to Cairo is above all the situation on Egypt’s northeastern border and in the Red Sea.

Opaque deals with Saïed or al-Sisi would not be that easy to push through in a Europe still clearly ruled by liberals, but times have changed.

Whereas at least half-a-million people have fled to Egypt in the year since the start of the war between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces, a notorious militia temporarily supported by the EU in the 2010s, el-Sisi’s regime is also preparing for the possible arrival of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. EU governments and the Western public continue to ignore as best as they can the countless calls by Israeli officials for the expulsion of Gaza’s entire population to Egypt or other Arab countries. Nevertheless, the course of the war so far, Israel’s announcement of a ground offensive in the Palestinian city of Rafah, and emergency measures already initiated by Egyptian authorities in North Sinai are fuelling fears that the mass displacement of Palestinians to North Sinai will come to pass sooner or later. Meanwhile, Egypt’s preparations for “managing” Palestinian refugees are in full swing, even as el-Sisi and his regime continue to categorically oppose any expulsion scenario.

Given the developments in North Sinai since 2014, the Trump administration’s meddling in the region, and Israeli officials’ repeated calls for such mass expulsions, el-Sisi’s promises should not be taken for granted. That said, Egypt would not only have to support such a scenario politically and keep the significant opposition in Egyptian society to mass expulsions in check, but would also require a great deal of economic resilience, as the war is hitting Egypt’s economy hard. The shelling of container ships in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Houthi movement has already caused Egypt’s Suez Canal revenues to plummet, with no end in sight.

Israel and its European allies, who continue to diligently supply the occupying Israeli forces with armaments despite numerous reports of war crimes and the weaponization of food and medical aid, are in dire need of political stability in Cairo and economic stability in Egypt should such a Gaza displacement scenario materialize. Thus, for governments in Rome, Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, or Berlin, the Egyptian regime is now more “too big to fail” than ever.

In Orbán’s Wake

The unprecedented appearance of European leaders in Cairo was also a reflection of the shifting balance of power in the EU. Once again, the duo of Ursula von der Leyen and Giorgia Meloni are jointly driving forward the externalization of the European border regime and publicly suggesting — immediately ahead of the EU elections — that deals with autocratic regimes can help counter irregular migration. Italy’s post-fascist Prime Minister Meloni is and remains Europe’s key official pushing this approach, as her four visits to Tunisia last year played a crucial role in concluding a similar deal with increasingly authoritarian President Kais Saïed.

She travelled to Algeria and Libya in early 2023, before attending a summit with African heads of state in Rome in January 2024 to promote Italy’s “Mattei Plan for Africa”, an economic and development initiative to boost Italian–African cooperation. Although the visits to Algiers and Tripoli were ostensibly about energy partnerships, Meloni’s ambitious migration, energy, and foreign policies and her packed travel schedule in North Africa are expanding Italy’s footprint in the Mediterranean to a not inconsiderable extent.

Opaque deals with Saïed or al-Sisi would not be that easy to push through in a Europe still clearly ruled by liberals (even if Germany and Italy have unabashedly armed Egypt’s notorious police for years), but times have changed. What von der Leyen and Meloni have set into motion since 2023 largely corresponds to demands long raised by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose government maintains close ties with el-Sisi. For years, he called on the EU to abandon its reluctance to supply further equipment to Egypt and cooperate more closely with el-Sisi on migration control. The recent EU–Egypt deal is hence a political victory for Orbán, Europe’s far right, and el-Sisi alike.

Meanwhile, Meloni’s promise to pursue a partnership with post-colonial African states on equal footing and push ahead with Mattei Plan projects is eagerly received in Cairo, Tunis, or Algiers, as such neocolonial deals appear useful for North African elites to maintain a fragile economic stability and their own grip on power. They are also very much in line with the short-term goals of political elites on both sides of the Mediterranean. It is thus no surprise that Lebanon and Morocco, two other EU neighbours key to migration control, are said to be on Brussels’s wish list for future deals.