As Egypt appears to lurch back towards a pre-revolutionary security state, there's an urgent need for the EU to make a firm statement that the country is no longer moving towards a democratic future
The European Union played an honourable role in Egypt, both before and after the army’s seizure of power in July, in trying to mediate between opposing political groups. But after the brutal action by security forces against Islamist protest camps this week, any strategy of trying to forge political consensus has reached its limit. European policymakers need to regroup and develop a new set of objectives in responding to the catastrophe unfolding in the heart of the Arab world.
According to the latest figures, the security forces’ move against the protest camps probably led to over 600 deaths. There is every reason to fear that further violent clashes are likely. With this latest crackdown, the declaration of a state of emergency and the appointment of a swathe of generals and former Mubarak loyalists as governors, it seems that Egypt has reverted to something resembling the security state that prevailed before the revolution of 2011.
Since the ousting of President Morsi last month, European and other diplomats have consistently argued that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups needed to brought back into the political sphere if Egypt was to continue moving towards a pluralistic democracy. It must have been obvious to the security forces that control Egypt that a violent move against the camps would make this goal impossible, at least in the near term. Yet this consideration did not stay the Egyptian military’s hand, and may even have encouraged it. It is hard not to conclude that the authorities in Egypt do not care about moving towards democracy, if that includes political representation for the Muslim Brotherhood, but see the country’s future in the coming period under the firm hand of a security regime.
Egypt seems set on a path whereby the Muslim Brotherhood’s days as a lawful organisation are numbered – this despite the fact that its political wing prevailed in every one of the five free elections held since President Mubarak was overthrown. As Issandr el Amrani of the Arabist blog has argued, the army seems to have made the cynical calculation that provoking the Brotherhood’s supporters (and other Islamists) to violence and sectarian attacks on Coptic churches will only make it easier to put the organisation beyond the pale.
In the weeks following the army’s seizure of power, the EU forged a potentially valuable role as an interlocutor between the military, civilian members of the interim government, and Islamist groups. While working closely with the US, European officials benefited from the fact that the EU does not evoke the strong emotional reactions that the US inevitably does in the Middle East. High Representative Catherine Ashton was the first foreign leader to speak to Mohammed Morsi after he was deposed. It was diplomatically imaginative and skillful to involve the opposing regional countries of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the closed-door negotiations.
According to reports, representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups were ready to agree to a set of confidence-building measures, but the military refused to go along. While this effort continued, it was right for Europeans to emphasise the importance of trying to find a way forward that all sides could accept. But it would seem naïve and ineffectual to continue with this line after what has happened. Instead, the EU should put in place a new approach based on three linked objectives: taking a clear stand against the violence unleashed by the interim authorities and its anti-democratic moves; pursuing separate channels of discussion with the authorities and Muslim Brotherhood officials, aiming to contain the use of force and inflammatory measures as far as possible; and reviewing the EU’s engagement with Egypt to ensure that Europe responds in a measured and appropriate way to political developments in the country.
Since the spring of 2011, the EU’s relationship with Egypt has been built around the premise that the country is engaged in a transition to democracy. After the coup of 3 July and the security forces’ grossly excessive use of force against protestors, the moment has come to put that assumption into question. Anything less than this would make a mockery of the new approach to the southern Mediterranean announced after the Arab uprisings. This does not mean that the EU should abruptly break off its relations with authorities in Egypt. But it would be right to build on the statements and measures taken this week to indicate that the central idea of a democratic transition can no longer be taken for granted
The symbolic effect of such a statement would be more significant than the practical implications it would have. The additional benefits that are supposed to be directed to transitional countries in Europe’s neighbourhood under the EU’s “more for more” policy have been largely irrelevant in the case of Egypt, since governments there in the last two years have done little to take them up. Nevertheless it would be a sign of weakness for the EU to push forward with these programmes for the time being. The EU may have limited influence for the moment, given the intensity of the confrontation in Egypt, but it can at least withhold its endorsement from the path that military authorities seem set on. It would also be right for those European countries that have not yet suspended arms exports to Egypt to do so now, and EU member states should consider suspending bilateral assistance programmes except where they clearly benefit independent civil society.
Some Europeans may fear that by taking a tougher line they would forfeit what ability they have to keep open a channel of discussion with Egypt’s new rulers. But both European and US diplomats argued strongly against a violent move against the camps, and the brutality of the assault this week shows that their soft-spoken approach did not buy influence when it counted. Ultimately, a significant section of the Egyptian army and business elites is likely to recognise that the stability of Egypt’s relations with the EU and US is the best foundation for the country’s continued development and prosperity. The EU’s best path in a terrible situation is to look to the longer term, and make clear that the quality of Egypt’s relations with Europe (including its citizens and businesses as well as its governments) will be affected by the kind of political system that takes shape there.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.