By Ronald Meinardus
In Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, domestic turbulences are affecting international relations. Following the uprising in January 2011, Cairo has pursued what may be termed a multidimensional foreign policy aimed at reducing the unipolar dependence on the United States and other Western allies. These efforts have become particularly visible following the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Strong man Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent visit to Moscow was a climax of this endeavour. Local commentators even heralded the foundation of a new strategic alliance.
Cairo’s diplomatic manoeuvring is also a reflection of a slump in relations with the traditional Western partners. This is rooted in a deep dissent over domestic politics in Egypt which goes back to the beginning of the present regime and the squabbling over semantics as to how to describe what happened on 30 June and ensuing days. Was this a second revolution, as the new rulers and their supporters pronounced it, or had we witnessed a military coup, as many in the West would say?
In a swift reaction, Germany’s then foreign minister said that the removal of Morsi signalled “a heavy setback for democracy”. He went on to say that it is a serious instance that the military suspended the constitutional order. While Guido Westerwelle is no longer in office, his words reflect the core of European concerns. This goes hand in hand with the demand that Egypt is in need of an inclusive political process. While Europe’s various governments may not agree on every detail when it comes to Egypt, there is broad consensus regarding the plea for an inclusive process. The term “inclusive” has become a mantra of European policy statements and is, of course, also found in the recent declaration of the EU’s foreign ministers. There, they deplore “the absence of a fully inclusive process, the lack of attempts to overcome the polarisation of society and the closure of political space for dissenting opinion”. The statement also laments the deteriorating human rights situation, the deteriorating climate of the press, the selective justice against the political opposition, and other wrongdoings of the Egyptian authorities. The declaration is by and large a list of complaints, and not surprisingly, provoked all but diplomatic reactions in Cairo where the foreign ministry accused the Europeans of “a lack of judgement of what is happening on the ground” and deliberate disregard.
While the Egyptian government has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and is doing everything to liquidate the group, many Western governments continue to deal with the Islamists officially. “We Europeans talk to all political factions and the Brotherhood have been a very relevant fraction. Political dialogue is… part of the democratic process to engage with all fractions,” said German Ambassador to Cairo Michael Bock in a recent interview, which the editors conveniently titled “Peace and stability at risk unless all Egyptians included”. It would be my guess that European governments will continue occasional meetings with Egypt’s disempowered Islamists.
Despite the substantial divide regarding how to deal with the Muslim Brothers, neither side seems interested in a substantial political crisis. In a symptomatic coincidence of events, the European Union’s envoy in Cairo officially and rather publically offered the Egyptian government a far reaching trade agreement around the same time the Council of Ministers was lambasting Egypt for human rights violations and other failures. Call it coincidence or whatever, the parallelism of both actions sends a mixed European message to the Egyptian rulers. It is also miles away from the proclaimed strategy of “More for More” that was designed to reward Arab governments for good political and democratic conduct and punish them by reducing cooperation when such conduct is absent.
This incident is an indicator that Europe is back to the old times of cozy relations with dictator Hosni Mubarak, when it had become diplomatic routine to castigate the regime for human rights violations and lack of democracy, while in substance little was done to back up the moralising approach with punitive measures.
Apart from a ban on the sale of all “arms that can be used internally” no punishing actions have been taken. “If it had wanted to make a stronger point, the EU could have suspended aid, withdrawn its ambassadors, made a common demarche on the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs or slapped economic sanctions on the assets and movements of senior government or military officials,” says Rem Korteweg of the Centre for European Reform. “Of course, the EU could still do all these things, but it seems unwilling to antagonise the Egyptian government. Egypt is too important for several European interests; a secure Suez Canal, enduring Arab peace with Israel and the fight against militant Islam,” the European expert concludes.
“It will not take very long, and we will be back to normal relations with the Egyptians”, says a senior European diplomat. One more time, the reasoning for this “normalisation” will be Realpolitik. Apart from the mentioned strategic concerns, the “realists” argue that the Egyptians have had their chance at democracy – and failed pathetically. They also say, this part of the world is not fit for democracy and participative governance – and will fail again, if given another chance.
However, they deliberately factor out their own role and responsibility. They would certainly not concede that Arab democracy will hardly stand a chance as long as the outside world doesn’t get serious with the enemies of freedom.
Dr Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Cairo Twitter @Meinardus