A look at Egypt-EU relations after the coup and thoughts on how Brussels should best proceed in a troubled region.
I: Conflicting Responses
The magnitude and brutality of the military crackdown in Egypt has come as great surprise to the western powers. Both the EU and the US have had a difficult time calibrating their reactions to the recent events. In their responses, they have remained careful not to alienate Egypt’s military-backed rulers while still appearing tough on the heavy-handed methods used to quell opposition to the coup d’état. But although they have offered delicately-worded objections to the military’s actions, these are hardly commensurate with the more than 1,000 deaths which have occurred in Egypt over the past weeks. And while the EU has taken some initial measures to stem the flow of certain types of military equipment to Egypt, the U.S. has yet to formulate any material response.
For its part, the EU is placing its bets on dialogue as the best way to resolve the crisis in Egypt and it envisions a central role for itself in this process. High Representative Ashton has repeatedly stated that she would go to Cairo personally if it would help secure a peaceful resolution to the conflict. To date, she remains the only senior western official to have actually met with Mohammed Morsi since he was removed from office.
However, if the EU’s strategy of brokering a deal is to have any chance of succeeding, talks need be held as soon as possible. The violence with which the military has responded to Mohammed Morsi’s supporters has embittered many of them. Some Brotherhood members are even advocating that the organization should renounce its commitment to nonviolence. An ideological rift of this nature is likely to exacerbate tensions in an already fractured Muslim Brotherhood. Should this happen, the absence of a single figure at the organization’s helm will make conducting negotiations all the more challenging.
The SCAF is the ultimate arbiter of power in Egypt and as such, it also has the last say in political matters. Yet it would be misguided to underestimate the extent of support for the Muslim Brotherhood at the grassroots level. As the Washington Post explains, it has succeeded in becoming “almost a shadow state” in Egypt by winning “supporters over the decades with a vast network of charitable services”. This includes providing schools, free medical care and hospitals to rural areas. In this context, a potential shift toward embracing violence, although likely to be limited to the organization’s fringes, seems truly disconcerting.
At a recent press conference, the EU’s special representative to the Southern Mediterranean, Bernadino Leon, stated that the “violence is coming from all sides.” He continued: “Both sides understand very well that confrontation and violence is not the solution; this will lead nowhere.” It was also Mr Leon who, together with William Burns of the State Department, attempted to broker a last minute agreement between the Brotherhood and the military. The deal was ultimately rejected by the SCAF just hours before the deadly assault on the pro-Morsi protestor camp.
Even in the aftermath of the bloodshed, it remains difficult for the EU to exert economic pressure on the interim government. Very little of the € 5 billion in long-term aid promised by the EU, the EIB and EBRD in November of last year has actually been paid out. This is due largely to the continued instability and lack of sufficient reforms. Yet even aid based on ‘traditional’ development assistance, such as the European Neighbourhood Partnership Instrument, has been scaled back – only € 16 million has been disbursed so far this year. Because these funds are distributed primarily as sector budget support (in other words, they are channelled directly through the Egyptian government’s budget), reforms and transparency are crucial to making certain that the money arrives where it is intended to. Moreover, a large portion of these funds are in fact aimed at providing and maintaining basic social services to Egypt’s poorest. Reducing the breadth and scope of these aid programmes, therefore, would likely do more harm than good.
II: Prospects for the Southern Mediterranean
When the EU reviewed its policies toward the Southern Mediterranean region in 2011, it stated that its new approach “must be based on mutual accountability and a shared commitment to the universal values of human rights, democracy and rule of law.” While there is no doubt that Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated crass ineptitude in governing a socially pluralistic country such as Egypt, their rise to power was widely recognized as legitimate and democratic. In light of this, it certainly smacks of a double standard that the EU now expresses its solidarity with a military-backed regime which wrested power in a coup. This is likely to reinforce the perception, already common amongst Egyptians, that the West is opportunistic, capricious and only rhetorically committed to democracy.
In fact, Europe’s ambivalent response to the recent events in Egypt have already caused it to lose some favour with both sides. One the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is frustrated at the EU’s refusal to acknowledge that President Morsi was ousted in a coup. One the other hand, the military, which believes it is engaged in a legitimate struggle against terrorism on behalf of the people, is dismayed by the allegations of “disproportionate force” and “violence against civilians” made by European and US officials.
This development is disconcerting as the EU has come to play an unusually important role in the region. It has expended considerable resources on keeping the North African states on the path to democracy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As US’ influence in the region wanes, Europe can expect to slowly become the dominant purveyor of Western values in the region. For the EU, this represents challenge and opportunity in equal measure. Trade links between Europe and North Africa are already substantial – particularly for Spain, Italy and above all, France. While energy accounts for over half of all imports from the region, Morocco and Algeria do provide the EU with goods as diverse as machinery and foodstuffs.
Yet much of the region’s potential remains unexploited. Take the Desertec and Medgrid projects as an example. Both aim to bring clean solar power from the farthest reaches of the Sahara to Europe while simultaneously satisfying domestic energy needs. From a development standpoint, projects of this scale will help to promote cooperation in a region where economies remain too insular. On the other hand, they will also go a long way in helping the EU meet its renewable energy guidelines.
If Brussels ends up losing out in Egypt, its policy options throughout the Southern Mediterranean will be drastically limited. In the past, the SCAF has demonstrated remarkably little regard for EU-imposed conditions which it deemed inconvenient. Calls for inclusivity of the Muslim Brotherhood and for reinstitution of the democratic process are therefore likely to go unheeded this time around as well, just as the more recent demands for lifting the state of emergency have also been shrugged off. The idea of roundtable discussions between the SCAF and the Brotherhood seems such a distant possibility as to be almost absurd at this stage. And with the EU’s economic muscle still in a pinch, there is comparatively little which can be done to entice Al-Sisi, whose cult standing among ordinary Egyptians has only grown since Morsi’s ouster. Time is not on Egypt’s side however. With the economy eventually set to stonewall in the absence of external macroeconomic assistance, the EU will almost certainly have greater leverage down the road. The only question is whether Egypt can be carried back from the precipice then.
(Image courtesy of Nicolas Raymond)