By Alaa Bilal
The impunity of the Egyptian regime, Europe’s “indispensable” partner in fighting illegal migration and counter-terrorism measures, continues to shock and brutalize. Europe’s partner uses the privileges of this partnership beyond pleasing its European allies and sometimes against them. Cairo has been instrumentalizing these issues to clamp down on critics and human rights defenders. Its approaches to this partnership’s two central concerns, eradicating terrorism and fighting illegal migration, are unavoidably unsustainable and problematic.
Based on a request from European officials in Cairo, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the last standing human rights organizations and a important site for knowledge production and victim support in Egypt, held a meeting earlier this November to discuss “human rights issues as well as ways of supporting the enhancement of human rights in Egypt and globally.” The meeting, which was publicized by EIPR, included 9 European ambassadors to Egypt, including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the UK’s deputy ambassador and diplomatic representatives from Canada, Sweden, and Norway.
The time has come for Egypt’s European and western allies to reconsider their support for it
In what has become a typical, albeit still harrowing, response, the Egyptian regime reacted swiftly and aggressively, despite the foreign diplomatic presence. It arrested EIPR’s Executive Director, Gasser Abdel Razek, the Director of Criminal Justice Unit, Karim Ennarah, and EIPR’s Administrative Manager, Mohammed Basheer.
During interrogations that took place on Monday, 23 November, Abdel Razek told his lawyers that he has been kept in a solitary cell, all his belongings and money were confiscated, his head was shaved, and he is sleeping on a metal bed without a mattress or winter clothes. He has not left his solitary cell for three days.
They now join their colleague, Patrick George Zaki, arrested earlier this year. He continues to be detained without trial and after being subjected to torture, including electric shocks. Having worked in EIPR previously and knowing the arrested individuals, I am deeply affected.
But what does this response say about the impunity with which Cairo deals with its allies? More importantly, what should those European and other allies do beyond issuing condemning statements? Can business as usual on fighting terrorism and illegal migration continue for the intermediate and long futures?
The EIPR human rights activists were arrested after accepting an invitation to meet with European ambassadors in Egypt
The Egyptian regime has perfected hiding behind the issues of fighting terrorism and illegal immigration through a foreign and economic policy that implicates its allies. In his latest and sharp analysis for Carnegie’s Endowment for International Peace, Maged Mandour describes how (1) an unprecedented explosion of foreign loans, short-term bonds, (2) massive arm deals with western and European powers that made the country one of the top arms importers in the world, and (3) implicating big investments from these countries in ‘direct investments’, especially in Egypt’s oil and gas sectors, embody this strategy. As he asserts, “Even though the regime markets itself internationally as a bulwark against terrorism and illegal migration flows,” this strategy also “guarantees that any emerging demands for democratization would clash with international interests, essentially ensuring the survival of the regime far longer than it would have without such lavish support.”
Several recent studies advance a number of relevant findings challenging the assumption that maintaining business as usual with Egypt is productive, let alone sustainable. A EuroMed Rights study from 2019 titled “EU-Egypt Migration Cooperation: At the Expense of Human Rights,” demonstrates how such a collaboration on migration is “exploited” by Cairo and is undergirded by an exaggeration from both sides of Egypt’s contribution to this issue. While acknowledging that it is not a major country of origin, it affirms that the migration risks from Egypt are insubstantial. It shows Egypt’s glaring violations of international law and its ill treatment of both its nationals and migrants. The study’s recommendations are relevant, especially its first, “Any monitoring and evaluation of cooperation between the EU or its individual Member States with Egypt in the field of migration and asylum should be based, inter alia, on the consultation of relevant European and Egyptian independent civil society organisations.”
This attack on one of the very few still standing and respected civil society organizations, is a particularly chilling setback. It is not a coincidence then that last month more than 70 Sudanese refugees were arrested, and some of them were beaten after protests among Sudanese migrants erupted because of the stabbing of a 12-year-old Sudanese migrant. Many calls for countering human rights violations and racism in Egypt against refugees were made.
This attack on one of the very few still standing and respected civil society organizations, is a particularly chilling setback
Nor is the situation better with counter-terrorism. Data has shown that countries with the highest state repression are fertile grounds for terror and terror attacks. While the frequency of terror attacks by terrorist groups has decreased slightly, Sinai has continued to rage with terror since 2014. Also raging are the draconian laws with elastic accusations that are used to accuse any dissent of “terrorism”, mass and extended incarcerations without trials, widespread and systematic enforced disappearances, and, of course, torture.
A paper studying the deep reasons of how the brutal counter-terrorism is failing both Egypt and its allies, published by Safer World, demonstrates how Egyptian state violence has proven detrimental to counter-terrorism efforts and has provided “justification” for hardliners. Besides, it has advanced “a narrative for deflecting domestic and international criticism of its approach, and a pretext for attaining significant military and diplomatic support.” As such, the recommendations of the study are currently severely needed: (1) the reduction of arms sales to Egypt, which is already done in violation of existing European Commission laws, (2) focusing diplomatic pressures and pressing for accountability for human rights abuses, and (3) promoting new frameworks for security and justice in counter-terrorism efforts.
As I write this from Cairo, I am conflicted about writing this piece under a pseudonym, because of the real dangers of joining my previous EIPR colleagues in prison. When my young daughter asked me two days before the arrests about how many people I know who have been arrested here in Egypt, I did not answer. Not that I did not have the number ready in my head, but the pain that accompanied the mental images of those who were unjustly and tortured froze me. Now I can look back and think about this as a bad omen to the arrest of the best boss I worked with and some of the most amazing work colleagues and human rights defenders I ever encountered.
I am conflicted about writing this piece under a pseudonym, because of the real dangers of joining my previous EIPR colleagues in prison
The time has come for Egypt’s European and western allies to reconsider their support for it. This is especially important since the Egyptian civil society and social justice movement has been completely dismantled and wiped out. A new chapter on the international community’s relation with Egypt needs to be rewritten, with a complete halt of any arms deals – especially the shameless massive ones that Germany, Italy, and France have made with Cairo in violation of European Commission laws.
Diplomacy and pressure must be emphatically decisive. It is both the most ethical measure and the most effective for regional security and stability, especially since the Egyptian regime’s brutal and autocratic approach is bound to continue to create more problems than solutions. Standing up for European “fundamental values” now necessitates a firm stance against the Egyptian regime’s impunity, especially since such a stance cannot currently come from Cairo’s allies in Washington, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Tel Aviv. And while Cairo’s brutal response to the EIPR meeting is insulting to its European counterparts, it is Egyptians who pay the real price in suffering and blood, not just inconveniences in diplomatic realpolitik. More importantly, such a stance intersects with the dire needs for the social justice and human rights movements in Egypt, which are barely alive due to the brutalization of the current dictatorship.