By Declan Walsh – The New York Times –
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, whose government has jailed critics, muzzled the independent press and executed nine prisoners in the past week, has never appreciated lectures on human rights.
But the subject seemed to especially irk the authoritarian leader on Monday when, at the end of a major summit meeting with European and Arab leaders, he lashed out at Europeans who dared to question his record.
“You are not going to teach us about humanity,” Mr. el-Sisi told reporters. Europeans and Arabs have a different “sense of humanity, values and ethics,” he continued. “Respect our values and ethics, as we do yours.”
The outburst was a mark of the often awkward embrace between European Union and Arab League leaders in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, at their inaugural summit to broker closer ties on issues like migration and terrorism.
The summit was held in Egypt as a sweetener to Mr. el-Sisi, who European leaders hope will boost their efforts to deter or push back mostly African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. But the timing was awkward: Only weeks earlier, Mr. el-Sisi’s supporters in Parliament started a drive to extend his rule until 2034, possibly longer.
And the cloud of Egypt’s dismal rights record hung over the event, driven by accusations that European leaders were enabling Mr. el-Sisi’s repression. Those tensions burst into the open during the summit’s final hours.
In a strongly worded closing speech, Mr. el-Sisi accused prosperous European nations of showing little understanding of the pressures facing Arab countries threatened with conflict. He trenchantly defended his use of the death penalty. When he finished speaking, the hall of mainly Egyptians, including members of the country’s media, burst into applause.
The reception was not unanimous. “I really appreciate how enthusiastic your media are,” the European Council president Donald Tusk said wryly, addressing Mr. el-Sisi, The Associated Press reported. “It’s impossible in Europe to have such a reaction. Congratulations.”
The event, which gathered Arab leaders from across a region rived by conflict and political strife, was never going to be easy for the Europeans in terms of its political optics. The European Union once had an arms-length relationship with authoritarian rulers like Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for almost 30 years before his ouster in 2011.
But worries about terrorism and illegal migration, as well as a desire to make lucrative arms sales, have drawn European leaders closer to authoritarian leaders like Mr. el-Sisi — a stance critics say encourages their excesses at a time when the United States is often silent on rights abuses.
President Emmanuel Macron of France was feted in Cairo on a three-day visit in January. In 2017, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany dined with Mr. el-Sisi beside the pyramids.
“Sometimes you have to dance with whoever’s on the dance floor,” Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said in a speech in Zurich this month. “We don’t always have a choice.”
At the conference, much of the media focus was on the British prime minister, Theresa May, and her efforts to find a way through the imbroglio of Britain leaving the European Union. There was speculation of a potential “deal in the desert” with European leaders, but one failed to materialize.
The talks between the Arab and European states did not produce much in the way of concrete results. But Europe’s leaders signaled their desire to consolidate their sphere of influence as Russia and China move to fill the vacuum left by a retrenching United States.
“We are not here to pretend that we agree on everything,” Mr. Tusk, the European Council president, told attendees on Sunday. “But we face common challenges and have shared interests.”
Both camps, though, were weakened by internal division. The Cairo-based Arab League has been reduced to little more than a talking shop, and the Europeans are squabbling over how to handle illegal migration, even if migration has fallen to a seven-year low.
Not every Arab country sent its leader. The Europeans prevented President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, from attending.
Saudi Arabia was represented by King Salman, 83, on his first foreign trip in 16 months, an interval that heightened speculation that his health or his mental capacities were declining.
Those suspicions intensified during the king’s address to the summit, when he lost his place in his text, fumbling for 16 seconds and asking an aide about what he had already read, according to a live broadcast of the remarks. He continued, as the other delegations sat stone-faced, but fumbled again a minute later.
Mr. el-Sisi, though, visibly basked in the spotlight of his diplomatic triumph. One newspaper on Monday featured a full-length photo of Mr. el-Sisi surrounded by European and Arab leaders. In a speech on Sunday, he warned that terrorism was spreading like a “cursed plague.”
His counterterrorism tactics are under heightened scrutiny since the execution on Wednesday of nine people convicted of the killing of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s chief prosecutor, in a bomb attack in 2015. Human rights groups said the men’s confessions had been extracted under torture and their trials were deeply flawed.
Mr. el-Sisi defended the executions on Monday. “When a human being is killed in a terrorist act, the families tell me that we want the right of our children and their blood,” he told reporters. “This culture exists in the region and that right must be given through the law.”
In an editorial, the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi accused European leaders of shamefully endorsing Mr. el-Sisi’s repression. Mr. Tusk, the European Council president, said he insisted on human rights being included in the summit’s final declaration.
Still, Egypt’s most powerful supporters are not in Brussels but in Washington. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Egypt in January, he lavished praise on the Egyptian leader but made only a cursory mention of human rights.
Ultimately, the optics of Monday’s summit are less important than the follow-through by European countries, said Andrew Stroehlein, the European media director at Human Rights Watch. “We rarely say countries should never meet with a dictator or a bad guy,” he said.
“Sisi’s government is running a systematic torture system that probably amounts to crimes against humanity,” he continued. “But does that mean that not talking to him will change that calculation? Or should you meet him and bring human rights issues to the table, addressing them openly?”
Photo: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, right, and President Donald Tusk of the European Council, center, at the first European Union and Arab League summit in Egypt, which ended Monday. Credit Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images