Upholding values abroad: Europe’s balancing act in Egypt

Italy and the EU should not assume that a concerted campaign to release George Zaki is doomed to failure.

The plight of Egyptian student George Zaki has stirred concern in his temporary home of Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Zaki was arrested and allegedly tortured at Cairo airport on 7 February upon his return from Bologna where he had been studying. He has now been detained on a variety of charges, ranging from publishing rumours and fake news to inciting terrorism. His lawyers and independent activists argue the claims are baseless and say that Zaki has really been arrested for his human rights work. They now fear that he could now be detained indefinitely – a fate meted out to other activists in Egypt.

For Italy, Zaki’s case has brought back memories of the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher abducted and killed in 2016, allegedly by Egypt’s secret services. The authorities there have long refused to cooperate with the Italian government on the matter. Following Zaki’s arrest, Regeni’s parents released a statement urging “Italian and European institutions to immediately put in train all the concrete action never exercised to save Giulio’s life”.

The Egyptian government may well be persuadable on the Zaki case, and others like it – distant as the prospect may seem.

The human rights situation in Egypt is critical: the authorities are currently detaining thousands of activists with impunity. And, following a dubious constitutional referendum in 2019 that potentially extends President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s time in office until 2030, the regime has cemented its hold on power. The judiciary lacks independence and the Egyptian government currently feels emboldened to crack down on dissent and protests.

European capitals perceive Cairo as an indispensable ally, as a partner for economic gain, and a guard against migration flows

Nevertheless, its carapace is not impermeable. Past cases show that the Egyptian authorities have proven vulnerable to international public scrutiny over its human rights abuses. For instance, in 2015 Sisi chose to release two Al Jazeera journalists prior to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, where a head of steam had been building up around the case. Officials from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia had all expressed deep concern over the journalists’ treatment. The United Nations also condemned the sentences issued and called for the prisoners to be freed. Similarly, the release that same year of prominent activist Hossam Bahgat was made possible largely because of the momentum created by UN and European criticism.

There is little sign so far of a galvanised European effort to free Zaki. Official statements have been cautious. The European Union’s external affairs spokesperson, Peter Stano, has said merely that it is “evaluating” options, while European Parliament president David Sassoli reminded Egypt “that EU relations with other countries rely on respect for human and civil rights”. Few member states other than Italy have followed the EU and European Parliament in even commenting on the case.

There is no doubt that Europe deems Cairo an influential power on security and migration. On Libya and Israel-Palestine, Egypt is an essential partner; and Sisi’s ability to prevent migrant ships from reaching European shores has won lavish praise from European chancelleries, such as during Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz’s 2018 trip to the country. During a more recent visit, European Council president Charles Michel focused on Libya rather than Egypt’s human rights practices.

The economic strand of the relationship also encourages a realist approach to Egypt, including from Italy with its two high-profile human rights cases. In 2015, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi attended the Egyptian Economic Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, the first important international showcasing of Sisi’s ambitions. The same year Italian oil company Eni discovered the Zohr gas field off Egypt’s coast, which has been at the forefront of Italy’s investment expansion into the country. And Egypt and Italy recently signed multiple deals to boost cooperation on defence and civilian industries. Other European states have similar interests: France, with almost $4.3 billion in sales, is the top arms exporter to Egypt, recently overtaking the United States’ lead position, held since the 1970s.

Despite this, the EU and its member states can do more to set in motion an effective campaign to put pressure on Egypt. European Parliament statements are generally consistent in their emphasis on human rights matters, even if it is has been less vocal on the Zaki case.  French president Emmanuel Macron was seen to change his tone when he visited Egypt in January 2019 – although no changes in French arms sales followed. This resembles other European states, which may call for an improvement in conditions but are unprepared to shift their approach.

While it is clearly not in Europe’s gift to bring systemic change to Sisi’s regime, European pressure could still play an enhanced role in creating more space to prevent widespread abuses and civil society crackdown. Sustained pressure has in the past proven effective in helping to free activists on an ad hoc basis, and Europeans should now do the same for Zaki. His links to Italy mean that this EU member state should take the lead in calling for his release, but also for long-overdue justice for Regeni. Besides dialling up the pressure in public, Italy and its partners should go as far as to consider measures such as halting the sale of two frigates to the Egyptian navy unless there is clear progress on both cases.

Egypt may well relent. European capitals perceive Cairo as an indispensable ally, as a partner for economic gain, and a guard against migration flows. The Egyptian government knows this, but experience shows that Egypt needs its European partners too. And it cares about its reputation and is sensitive to criticism. European governments have the potential to build concerted and coordinated campaigns to look after their citizens. With more room for manoeuvre than first appears, they should take advantage of it.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Programme Manager, Middle East and North Africa

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