The EU in Egypt: supporting a dictatorship or ensuring stability?

24 March 2017 /

The European Union had a longstanding and well-functioning relationship with Egypt’s Mubarak army regime, in power for twenty years before being deposed in 2011. The EU supported the government-controlled capitalist market economy of Cairo and the United Kingdom is still the biggest investor in the country. Nowadays, Egyptian and diverse European security services still collaborate in the fight against terrorism.


This longstanding relationship was however jeopardized with the protests of 2011 which led to the ouster of Mubarak, and to free elections which were endorsed by the Council (Council of the European Union, 2012). The election resulted in the  Muslim Brotherhood taking power with the Islamist Mohamed Morsi becoming president.

This could have been seen as a step forward for Egypt in key domains such as the rule of law, parliamentarism, free and fair elections, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In its initial reaction, the EU institutions supplemented funding for the government through various mechanisms. The intergovernmental European Investment Bank offered to double its loans which were to reach 1 billion euros a year (Pinfari, 2013). There were a lot of carrots for the new Egyptian government. The EU, through declarations by the former High Representative Ashton, praised the new government. But it was still somewhat unsatisfied, calling for the protection of civil society movements, and “deep democracy” before talking about the importance of border control and security (Ashton, 2011). One can question the extent of the support on the ground in Cairo for “deep democracy”, a term which until then hasn’t even been used to describe any European member state polity.

Backing a democracy…

Nevertheless, the democratic transformation in Egypt which was supported by the Union reached at least some of its goals: it was a clear step forward to encompassing the values of the Union. On the other hand, the country’s economic performance was deteriorating, which sparked new protests leading ultimately to a coup against Morsi, and the re-installation of army dictatorship led by Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi a former general under Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt  went off the road of democracy triggered the support from the High Representative and the Council. The former HR, Catherine Ashton was relatively free in pursuing the EU foreign policy in Egypt during Morsi’s government, as there were no Council conclusions on Egypt for the year 2013 until the army coup in summer. With no politically binding declarations from the Foreign Affairs Council, the Egyptian democratic transition could easily be supported by Baroness Ashton.

© Daniel Vig
© Noel Daniel Vig

Rationally, the turn back to dictatorship in the summer of 2013 would prompt clear backlash from the Union, as the rule of law, democracy, and free and fair elections were all abolished with the new regime. President Morsi was jailed and the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed. However, the coup by the army safeguarded the economic channels between the Egypt and the EU member states, and the Union helped stabilise the country economically. The deposition of an Islamist government and its replacing with a secular, more trustworthy in the preservation of religious freedoms, regime was politically welcomed in Europe which at the time started experiencing an explosion of Muslim refugees.

Since the fall of Morsi, Council conclusions on Egypt have been adopted swiftly, one after the other. Conversly, this has narrowed the relative autonomy of the High Representative to conduct an autonomous foreign policy as she did during the Morsi presidency, to one more in line with member-states interests. As the European Council, along with the Council, by unanimity determines the political agenda of the Union, the hands of the HR are tied and is obliged to follow its conclusions. This has led to a legitimisation of the Sisi dictatorship as neither conclusions, nor resolutions, sanction the repressive measures taken by the new Egyptian government.

Or betting on stability?

Since the fall of Morsi in July 2013 the Council conclusions were less and less about the reinstallation of democracy and respect to human rights, and moved towards the question of security and stability, highlighted by the FAC conclusion of the 10th of February 2014:

“The EU condemns in the strongest possible terms the terrorist attacks in the Sinai and other parts of Egypt, in which a number of civilians and security personnel have been killed or injured. No cause can justify terrorist violence. The EU reaffirms its commitment to support the stability and security in Egypt” (Council of the European Union, 2014).

The Council back-tracked on the questions about democracy, and basic freedoms, and instead concentrated on preserving the stability of the country, which legitimises the army dictatorship. Al-Sisi has visited France, Germany, and the United-Kingdom to discuss security and economy issues. The UK, has vastly invested in the Egypt and recently congratulated the country on its economic reform programs which has led to a €12 billion loan from the IMF in November 2016.

The European Union, through its intergovernmental decision-making processes has supported the EU member states’ goal to stabilise the country politically by granting them economic grants. This might however backfire. The Egyptian pharmaceutical syndicate is threatening with strikes, and the Egyptian pound has lost much of its value to the dollar since the IMF loan.

Advancements by the IS-linked insurgents in the Sinai has threatened the Coptic Christian families living there, and in February many of them left. The stability of the country is becoming questioned because of the inability and ruthlessness of the armed forces – who the EU states are supporting. Arms sales and financial grants to the regime by the European member states create strong links to a ruling elite whom against the Egyptian people revolted against in 2011. However, now with the Islamic State in the equation worse may await.

Egyptian repression and European actions in November 2016
Repressive actions by Sisi’s government EU actions in Egypt EU member states action in Egypt
Egypt jails Head of Journalist’ Syndicate for 2 years. EU delegation in Egypt promotes ENI instrument worth €209 million. France reaches agreement to supply 8 Rafale fighter jets in 2016.
Government proposes new NGO law, which bans all NGOs who don’t follow government regulation. Egypt and EU discusses the expansion of €60 million school improvement programme. France approves €12 billion IMF loan to Egypt.
Egypt’s press union sends list of 29 detained journalists for pardoning. European Parliament’s Mashreq delegation meet President Al-Sisi in Egypt discussing migration and terrorism. Egypt signs €345 energy development agreement with France, Germany, the EU and EIB.
Government seizes Muslim Brotherhood-run medicine companies. EU and EIB announces founding of a windmill project with MS banks worth  €345m. BP of UK announces €13 billion investment in Egypt gas sector until 2020.
Three prisoners die in three days in Egyptian prisons. Dimitris Avramoulos, Commissioner for migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship visits Cairo and meets with President Sisi and stresses more EU support. Egypt announces €25.3 million “technical cooperation agreement” with Germany.
11 defendants sentenced for 5 year for protesting without permit. France announces €889 million in investmentenergy infrastructure.

Noel Daniel Vig is a Master student at ULB Institute for European Studies

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