In a year of crises and confrontations in Egypt, the EU’s soft-spoken approach ultimately meant it forfeited any chance of influencing the standards by which the transition would be judged.
This was a year of complex and sometimes fast-moving political change in Egypt. A series of crises and confrontations between the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and civil/liberal opposition groups ended with President Mohammed Morsi pushing through a controversial constitution that entrenched presidential and military power and fell short on human rights. While the EU achieved some success in building relations with new forces and mobilising economic support, it was unable to make any real mark on Egypt’s turbulent political scene.
It was always going to be difficult for Europe to find a way of inserting itself into a political process that is driven above all by domestic Egyptian factors. At times, it was also wise to avoid responding to every twist and turn of events, for example during the manoeuvring between the army, the courts, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer. But the EU’s soft-spoken approach ultimately meant it forfeited any chance of influencing the standards by which the transition would be judged. The EU’s policy of focusing on incremental cooperation and sectoral reform seemed poorly aligned with the realities of Egyptian political life.
In the first half of the year, the EU could have taken a stronger line against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for its opaque and divisive handling of the transition, which poisoned the political scene for the rest of 2012. The EU was also notably reticent over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on civil society in February. In November, the EEAS-led Task Force showcased the priorities and limitations of the EU’s relationship with Egypt. The meeting managed to find the significant sum of €5 billion in loans and grants for 2012–13, but EU representatives were unable to prevent the Egyptian government from withdrawing an invitation for human rights groups to attend the Task Force meeting. This suggested the lack of a clear vision of how the EU’s commitment to democracy and human rights should be advanced in this strategically important country.