Since the removal of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s president in 2011, Europe’s objectives and influence in the country have undergone a series of fluctuations. Under Mubarak, Egypt had a fairly straightforward relationship with Europe. This relationship was grounded in the realpolitik of authoritarian stability – which European countries relied on to further their economic and security interests across the Middle East and north Africa – and on Mubarak’s friendships with several European leaders.
Egypt’s post-2011 transition initially seemed to create an opportunity for a deeper relationship in which Europe helped encourage a process of genuine political and economic reform. However, due to regional conflicts, the migration crisis, and Egypt’s reversion to authoritarianism under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Europe has returned to its previous model of engagement with the country in the last few years.
The view from Cairo
The Egyptian authorities see Europe’s real strength as being its economic and cultural power – as opposed to its ability to project military force. Europe is Egypt’s largest trading partner, while European companies have an extensive presence in the country. The European Union accounted for 29.7 percent of Egypt’s trade (by volume) in 2017. In 2018 Europeans accounted for the majority of tourists in Egypt, thereby contributing to the revival of a sector that provides a hard-currency lifeline to the Egyptian economy.
European financial packages and investments also provide crucial funding for a variety of projects in Egypt. In addition to direct funding from the EU, Egypt received support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in 2015. Three years later, Egypt overtook Turkey as the EBRD’s largest investment destination, receiving around €1.2 billion for agribusiness, property, renewable energy and other sources of power, tourism, and transport projects. Some EU member states, notably Germany and France, provide Egypt with significant amounts of bilateral development assistance and other forms of financial support.
Egypt has experienced an impressive macroeconomic recovery since 2014, but its fast-growing population and high levels of youth unemployment pose significant socioeconomic and security challenges. While economic reforms have improved Egypt’s public finances and increased its foreign currency reserves, austerity measures and the flotation of the Egyptian pound have disproportionately harmed the country’s poor. As Egypt continues to grapple with these problems, Europe’s economic support will remain critical for the Egyptian economy.
Europe has some political leverage over Cairo. The EU has an ability – however limited – to legitimise or delegitimise any political transition in Egypt, and to highlight human rights abuses in the country. The Egyptian government is very sensitive to public criticism of its human rights record. Sisi evidently craves international recognition, not least that from European countries. He has sometimes made small gestures, such as the release of a few political prisoners, in the run-up to his appearances at the UN General Assembly and other international forums. But Egypt’s institutions have strongly rejected European condemnation of the country’s political direction more broadly.
In response to criticism from the European Parliament or, less often, EU member states, the Egyptian government either attempts to quietly contain any controversy or responds with nationalist rhetoric. For example, in 2018, the Egyptian Parliament described the European Parliament’s criticism of the Egyptian approach to human rights as interference in its internal affairs. The Egyptian Parliament stated that the European body should instead “do more to contain rampant violations of basic rights and freedoms in the European continent, stem the tide of racism, [and] tackle hate speech and growing anti-Muslim sentiments in European communities”.
The Egyptian regime is aware that the EU is unlikely to go beyond mild criticism, because Europe relies on Egyptian cooperation to protect some of its key interests. Firstly, Egypt plays a role in combating unregulated migration in the Mediterranean – something it emphasises strongly in dealings with its European partners. Secondly, Egypt has influence over the stability of the Middle East and north Africa: it is a key player in the Libyan conflict and has some capacity to bring together Palestinian factions involved in any flare-up of conflict with Israel. Thirdly, Egypt is a reliable security partner: the Egyptian intelligence services work closely with their European counterparts on counter-terrorism. Fourthly, alongside the economic interests discussed above, some EU member states (especially France) view Egypt as an important customer for their arms industries. Finally, Italian energy firm Eni’s discovery of the Zohr and Nooros fields in the eastern Mediterranean has put Egypt in a position to become a regional gas hub – which could help serve Europe’s energy needs.
For Europe, Egyptian cooperation in some of these areas is of debatable value. For instance, Egypt has pursued its own line in Libya rather than the mainstream European one. Nonetheless, Egypt exploits the perception that Europe cannot afford to alienate it.
Egypt’s diversified relationships
Despite Europe’s importance to Egyptian policymakers, other powers – notably, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have greater leverage over Egypt. Since 2013, the two countries have provided grants, low-interest loans, and fuel shipments worth billions of dollars to stabilise the Egyptian economy. Egypt is a key member of a regional alliance led by the Saudis and the Emiratis, which has asserted itself in various political transitions and conflicts across the Arab world, including those in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.
Historically, Egypt has emphasised its relationship with the United States – although this has ebbed and flowed in recent years. Following the deterioration of US-Egypt relations under the presidency of Barack Obama, the US has returned to an essentially uncritical stance under his successor, Donald Trump – who memorably described Sisi as his “favourite dictator”. The Egyptian military still favours US weapons, as well as joint training and coordination with the US military, above all others. Washington’s current position on Egypt weakens Europe’s ability to pressure the country to make policy changes.
The relationship between Egypt and Russia has experienced a renaissance with political, security, and economic dimensions. As part of this, the countries’ leaders have exchanged state visits – the most recent of which took place in October 2018, when Sisi travelled to Russia.
China has also sought to deepen its relationship with Egypt, partly by establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership with the country (which involves a higher level of institutional communication – including regular high-level meetings between top leaders – than a strategic partnership). According to the Egyptian Ministry of Trade and Industry, Egypt is China’s third-largest trading partner in Africa. In 2017 the value of trade between the two countries reached around $10.9 billion, while the value of Egypt’s imports from China was more than $8 billion – higher than that of any other country in north Africa.
Back to the future
In recent years, Cairo’s diversification of its foreign policy and economic relations has reduced its overreliance on traditional partners the US and Europe. This can be seen in Egypt’s efforts to deepen its relationships with not only Russia and China but also African countries. Purchases of military equipment are a key part of this diversification strategy.
This puts Europe in a bind. It could emphasise political dialogue, democratisation, and human rights issues in Egypt, but this would risk alienating the country’s leadership. Alternatively, Europe could forget about the 2011 Egyptian revolution and fall back on the illusion of authoritarian stability. This could cause problems in the long term, as the aspirations of most Egyptians would remain unfulfilled. Yet Europe could also take a middle way: using what influence it has to support Egypt’s socioeconomic development and promote the rule of law, while taking a polite but principled stance on human rights abuses in the country.