Dear Chancellor Merkel,
When you meet President al-Sisi in Cairo this week, it is natural that you should seek Egypt’s cooperation on issues of direct importance to Germany, including migration, security, economic ties and regional issues. At the same time, it would not serve German or European interests to neglect the serious concerns raised by Egypt’s current direction and the potential dangers that it involves.
Under President al-Sisi, Egypt currently offers few prospects for successful cooperation and large risks of future instability. Despite a limited number of economic reforms, there are few signs that the leadership has the vision to pull Egypt out of a slow-motion economic crisis that combines high unemployment, crippling debt, a rising cost of living and grossly inadequate public services. Policymaking is concentrated in a narrow circle of military advisors and civilian experts are largely disempowered.
Business, civil society and political parties are systematically marginalised, and the most vocal among them are often silenced. Only a few days before your visit, authorities shut down a leading anti-torture NGO, the Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, while a rare opposition voice, Anwar al-Sadat, has been disbarred as a member of parliament.
President al-Sisi’s narrow and over-securitised way of ruling has led to a decline in state effectiveness, which means that the government is often unable to follow through in cooperation on projects agreed with international partners. Rising hardship and the repressive policies pursued by security services have weakened the country’s social contract. Even if there are few signs of any imminent large-scale protests, the mounting pressures on the population are storing up trouble for the future.
While Germany and the EU seek an increased partnership on migration and other issues, this should not be approached as if Europe needs cooperation more than Egypt does. The EU remains Egypt’s most likely partner in economic development and modernisation, and improved arrangements for handling the movement of people through and from Egypt should be part of this dialogue – but not at the expense of broader concerns.
Germany and Europe have a strong interest in signalling to President al-Sisi that a change of direction in Egypt is necessary. Reining in abusive security forces, widening consultation and representation in policymaking, and opening political space are necessary to set the country on a credible path to reform and stabilise it in the longer term. This in Europe’s interest: further deterioration in political and social conditions can only lead to higher outflows of migrants and insecurity to the EU. Moreover, the regime’s repressive approach means that any endorsement of al-Sisi’s as a respectable international leader comes at the expense of the liberal democratic values that Europe seeks to uphold.
We believe that it is important that alongside the quest for short-term cooperation, you send a clear message that Germany and Europe would like to see a shift in the government’s policies. If Germany appears to offer al-Sisi uncritical endorsement, it would only encourage him to persist on a path that will not fulfil the Egyptian people’s aspirations or promote European interests over the longer term. Uncritical engagement with Egypt is not realpolitik: it is not based on a realistic assessment of the dangerous mixture of repression and non-inclusive governance that currently prevails. Germany, and Europe, should engage with Egypt as a plural and vital country, not just with its regime.
The group is co-chaired by Anthony Dworkin from European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Issandr El Amrani of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Other members are*:
Rasmus Alenius Boserup, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS)
Koert Debeuf, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Europe (TIMEP)
Haizam Amirah Fernández, Real Instituto Elcano
Stéphane Lacroix, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Sciences Po (CERI)
Charles Powell, Real Instituto Elcano (RIE)
Stephan Roll, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
Patrycja Sasnal, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)
Nathalie Tocci, Italian Institute for International Affairs (IAI)
Richard Youngs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP)
The EWGE has been endorsed by the following prominent Europeans:
Gunilla Carlsson, former Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation
Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO, International Crisis Group; former Under Secretary General for UN Peacekeeping Operations
Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament
*This letter reflects the views of the individual signatories; institutional affiliations are listed for the purpose of identification only.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.