Why Europe should push Egypt to release detained human rights activists

The Egyptian regime has shown that it is prepared to give ground on individual cases or pieces of legislation in the face of concerted pressure

United Nations Photo CC BY-NC-ND

On 3 November, human rights organisation the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) hosted a meeting of a group of European diplomats at its offices in Cairo. In an apparent campaign of retaliation, the Egyptian authorities have since arrested three of the organisation’s senior staff members, including its director, Gasser Abdel-Razek, on charges of terrorism and spreading false information. The move deals another blow to Egypt’s beleaguered civil society and shows a striking disdain for European governments, which risk looking weak if they fail to respond forcefully to this provocation.

Since Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in 2013, he has overseen an expanding crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the wider political opposition, and civil society. His regime has imprisoned tens of thousands of people on political charges. Many Egyptian human rights organisations have been forced to close or to move their staff out of the country, but some have remained in operation while facing the continual risk of persecution. The EIPR, founded in 2002, has long been one of Egypt’s most dynamic and respected human rights organisations.

The meeting on 3 November involved ambassadors and other senior diplomats from 12 European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) and the EU delegation, as well as Canada. The EU and its member states have largely overlooked Sisi’s repression in recent years, valuing Egypt as a partner on migration, security, and regional issues, as well as a customer in large-scale arms sales. European countries issued a number of critical statements as Sisi’s campaign of repression took shape after 2013 but, since then, they have normalised their relations with Egypt. Most recently, European Council president Charles Michel visited Egypt in early November to discuss security cooperation.

Most of the countries represented at the meeting have issued statements expressing concern about the latest arrests. And some, including the UK, have said their foreign ministers have been in touch with their Egyptian counterpart. It is essential that European countries make clear that their relations with Egypt will not continue as normal unless it releases the detained EIPR employees. While Egypt is certain to push back strongly against any criticism (as it already has with France), the regime has shown that it is prepared to give ground on individual cases or pieces of legislation in the face of concerted pressure. One example of this came in 2015, when the authorities arrested and then released EIPR’s founder, Hossam Bahgat.

Clearly, the move against EIPR is intended to signal to civil society that talking to foreign diplomats is out of bounds – and to signal to diplomats that meeting with human rights activists can put them in danger. But, in some ways, the timing of the move is odd. It comes as Egypt prepares for a change of administration in the United States, from a president who has made clear his indifference to human rights violations to one who has vowed to re-establish human rights as a guiding principle of foreign policy.

The EU and its member states have largely overlooked Sisi’s repression in recent years, valuing Egypt as a partner on migration, security, and regional issues, as well as a customer in large-scale arms sales.

Joe Biden warned during his presidential campaign that, if he won the election, there would be no more blank checks for Sisi. And the arrests of EIPR’s leaders have been noticed in Washington: Antony Blinken, reported to be Biden’s choice as secretary of state, said that he was concerned at the arrests and that meeting with diplomats was not a crime. In other ways, Sisi has apparently moved to try to improve relations with the incoming administration. In the days following the election, he announced the release of several imprisoned relatives of Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan. And Egypt has recently signed a large contract with a Washington-based lobbying firm.

Some observers, such as Egyptian human rights activist Bahey Eldin Hassan, believe that the regime could plan to use EIPR staff as negotiating cards to play if the Biden administration threatens to withhold aid. It is also possible that the arrests were undertaken by the security apparatus without any wider strategic plan, given the crude way in which it operates and the lack of accountability for its actions so far. In any case, if European countries do not indicate that these arrests will lead Europeans to adopt greater distance in their relations with Egypt, they will have lost further ground with its authoritarian regime.

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

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