The Chemical Autumn of the Arab Region

& the Political Responsibility of Civil Society

The Arab region—as a regional order and national regimes, ruling and opposition political elites, secularists and Islamists actors, majorities and ethnic and religious minorities—is facing an immeasurably more profound crisis than it faced at the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings seven years ago. While its severity and manifestations may vary from one state to the next, no state in the region is exempted, including the sole country in which the uprising left an imprint, Tunisia, or countries that escaped the Arab Spring altogether, like Morocco. This historical predicament is the product of several interrelated structural crises, most significantly:

  1. The dwindling legitimacy of existing political systems absent a viable alternative to them.
  2. The erosion of existing social, cultural, and religious values absent an alternative system capable of sweeping them away.
  3. A severe generational conflict.
  4. A critical crisis of inequality and some of the sharpest wealth and income disparities in the world: 15 percent of adults claim 61 percent of total income in the region (compared to 47 percent of total income in the US and 36 percent in Europe), while 50 percent of adults receive just 9 percent of total income.
  5. An obsolete social contract which, in most countries in the region, was formed 60 years ago in the wake of the wave of national liberation.
  6. The unraveling of the regional order first established under European auspices more than 70 years ago.
  7. The lack of any institutional mechanisms for moderating a peaceful intra- or inter-state social dialogue on how to address these six interrelated crises.

At the same time, the post-World War II international order is facing its own crisis of a kind unseen since its birth. It is consequently unable to offer moral support to the Arab region at this decisive moment. This has encouraged the major regional players—Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Russia—to take as much as they can from the Arab region, which is effectively the ‘sick man’ of the world in the 21st century. The aggressive roles played by Iran, Turkey, and Israel in the region – allowed by the international community to expand unchecked - reflects this fact, as does the birth and rapid rise of the Islamic State, which quickly took control of an area the size of Great Britain for nearly two years.

The wars and violent struggles underway in the region, which engage in some of the most savage methods of warfare in history—chemical weapons, barrel bombs, ethnic cleansing, demographic engineering, massacres, mass rape, collective and individual extrajudicial killing, sexual slavery, immolation, mass displacement, enforced disappearance—are unequivocal indications of political bankruptcy on the international, regional, and national levels.

In the early weeks of the Arab Spring, potential solutions to these crises appeared on the horizon, with their level of development and practicality differing from one country to the next. Among these solutions was political Islam, as alternative elite with an alternative project. Now no light at all is visible at the end of the tunnel, which is blocked with the wreckage of what used to be states and regimes, and millions of refugees, dead civilians, and prisoners. The tunnel’s air is thick with hatred and the fog of chemical warfare, which is being normalized as a tool of dialogue between the rulers and the ruled, with regional and international complicity. All this indicates the light at the end of the tunnel remains very distant indeed.

After the suppression of the Arab Spring, there seemed to be a return to the pre-2011 formula of governance. It quickly became apparent, however, that it was not so simple. The Arab Spring did not so much create the crisis as expose its depth. Regimes that were not touched by the tempests of the Arab Spring (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Sudan) are unable to continue to rule by the same methods, while regimes that were not uprooted by the storms (Syria and Egypt) failed to secure even a minimum of political legitimacy and stability, even in the short term.

It also became apparent that political Islam was part of the problem rather than the solution. The Islamist project offered no alternative and held no solution to such extensive crises, no matter how long its political party remained in power and regardless of its specific form: conservative in Egypt, intellectually revivalist in Tunisia, democratic in Morocco, or dictatorial in Sudan, where it has ruled for 29 years. In short, it became apparent that the crisis was beyond the capabilities—perhaps beyond the comprehension—of all players, whether in power or opposition, within or outside of the region.

The sustainability of Syria, Libya, and Yemen as unified, geographically cohesive countries came into question. Other countries (Algeria, Oman, Kuwait, and Palestine) are experiencing a crisis of gerontocracy, posing questions about their fate when the head of the regime is gone. Morocco may fall into this category as well, if rumors are correct that King Mohammed VI is on the verge of relinquishing the throne even though the crown prince cannot be crowned for another three years, and lacks any political experience in a country witnessing remarkable social and political ferment. The same question may be pertinent in Libya if the strongest military commander, Khalifa Haftar, does not recover from serious illness, although the state and army are not unified, and even Haftar’s “army” includes armed Salafi militias.

The Palestinian Authority is liable to collapse at any moment, even if Abu Mazen continues to serve as president, due to the utter collapse of the two-state solution and the lack of any viable alternative. Meanwhile both the Abu Mazen and Hamas governments are incapable of meeting the minimum needs of Palestinians, while economic and security pressures from Israel mount as the international community is increasingly pulling out of the so-called peace process. The US is openly backing Israeli expansionist plans with the active complicity of some Arab countries as part of “the deal of the century.” Although the outlines of the deal remain murky, the winners and losers are obvious to all.

From May 2017 to May 2018, municipal, parliamentary, or presidential elections were held in seven Arab states: Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine (though only in the West Bank), Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iraq; all of which were marked by low voter turnout. Turnout was lowest in Jordan at 31 percent, while the highest level of participation was seen among people living under occupation, as 53 percent of Palestinians turned out. In Tunisia, two-thirds of voters declined to cast a ballot, and independent candidates outperformed all political parties, including the two parties making up the governing coalition. In Iraq, 44 percent of voters turned out, but two of the ten million voters left their ballots blank. Morocco did not hold elections in the past year, but the last poll—the parliamentary elections in October 2016—saw voter turnout of 43 percent.

Given the lack of confidence in the integrity of elections in the Arab region, actual voter turnout in some states may be much lower than the official figure. Egypt is a prime example: official turnout for the presidential election in March 2018 was 41 percent—a barely credible figure in a nakedly farcical election that was in fact a referendum on another four-year term for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president having disposed of all serious competitors either via imprisonment or other means. Observers believe real turnout was likely no more than 10 percent.

More important than debating the fairness of these elections is that these indicators reflect a severe crisis of political legitimacy in the Arab region and the lack of public confidence in the elite and political parties, both ruling and opposition. It is likely that the public in Arab states no longer has confidence in elections or other democratic means of changing and improving their lives. This is bad news not only for rights defenders, but also for political, economic, social, and cultural actors inside and outside of the Arab region, and it is an auspicious sign for the forces of political and religious extremism and terrorism.

Nevertheless, the peoples of the region face an even more tragic crisis of identity, related to the degree to which the identity of each person or community (religious, national, or cultural) conforms to its historical identity. Each of these communities is also witnessing a muted generational conflict and a parallel daily battle with inherited values and patriarchal social structures in the region. The impossible mission of the Arab Spring was to confront this historical agenda, after post-colonial ruling elites failed to do so for the previous half century. In contrast, these elites had prioritized defending their monopolization of power, resorting to massacres, ethnic cleansing, and chemical warfare; and, in this context, using disappearance, torture, and individual assassination might seem to some as less savage methods.

One of the most serious outcomes of this path of brutal exclusion was to wipe the issue of reform off the region’s agenda for decades. As a result, every difference of opinion with a ruler over social and political choices, however limited, became a zero-sum game and entailed the systematic crushing of alternative pro-reform political and cultural elites, regardless of how erudite these elites were or how sound their projects for reform.

For the first half of the 20th century, peoples in the Arab region waged a fierce struggle to liberate themselves from colonialism and claim their right to self-determination, but they did not know what to do with this right once it was won. Some of the leaders of the democratic movement in post-colonial Africa believed that further struggle was necessary to secure “a second independence” from the dictatorial elites of national liberation, but history showed that reality in the Arab region, as in Africa, was too complex for such a quixotic response. Taking up this historical task today is even more complex and onerous, especially after bloody counterrevolutions were waged in several countries and across the region, with massive material support from the Gulf, and also after the spread of civil war and armed conflict. This volatile and precarious climate was exploited by religious extremism to create the first social and political incubators that took the form of a state.

The crisis is magnified by the wave of political violence that has engulfed the region over the last seven years—the biggest since Arab countries won their independence. This violence has been stoked politically by regional states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE and through direct or proxy military interventions in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Outside the Arab region, Iran and Turkey have also intervened politically and militarily in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya. Iran is now the de facto ruler in three Arab states. This had happened as the Gulf Cooperation Council—which was the sole active institution in the regional Arab order—self-destructed (the League of Arab States has been clinically dead since the first weeks of the Arab Spring uprisings).

Russia too has come to play a decisive role in Syria and its influence is on the rise region-wide, but the case of Iran, and Turkey to a lesser extent, is different: Iran has become an active domestic player in the political, economic, religious, and military landscape of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria and, to a lesser degree, Yemen and Gaza. In Iraq, Iran controls militias that make up a parallel army. Economically, it controls the market in major Shia religious shrines, and it holds the last word on the formation of the governing coalition and prime minister. In Lebanon, Tehran controls Cabinet and parliamentary decisions through the one-third of parliamentary votes held by Hezbollah, whose military force outweighs that of the Lebanese national army. Hezbollah, for example, holds more than 100,000 guided missiles. In Syria, Iran shares political, military, and economic decision-making with Russia, thanks to its military bases throughout the country and the deployment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as well as Hezbollah and Iraqi militias that answer directly to Tehran. This Iranian military, economic, and political colonization of three Arab states calls into question the future of these three states and that of the Arab regional order, when Iran enjoys more than one vote without being a member. What is the likelihood of reviving the Arab League in this context?

With the military conflict in Syria, Iran is now a neighbor of Israel, meaning the potential for war between the countries - from Syria, Lebanon, or Gaza - is greater than that of war between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. The risk of war is heightened by the fact that the two-state solution in Palestine is effectively dead, while Israel rejects the solution of a binational state and Palestinians reject the colonial status quo. This means the region is vulnerable to another explosion, which may have ramifications for the crisis of rule in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both for their own peoples and the Palestinians. The two states have demonstrated a willingness to engage positively with the so-called deal of the century, which, when declared is likely to set off more and larger scale bloody confrontations with the Palestinians and perhaps even a new wave of mass displacement to neighboring countries, perhaps Jordan and/or Egypt. Jordan’s latest crisis is not only economic, despite the primacy of social demands.

 Civil society and the state

“The state” has become a mantra in the Arab region over the last seven years. It features prominently in the discourse and statements of many Arab presidents and monarchs and their media apparatuses, who present themselves as the defenders of the state and stability in the face of agents of chaos: political opponents, reformists, anti-corruption crusaders, and defenders of human rights and democracy. One reason the state is invoked so frequently is that this type of political discourse has proven effective in isolating political opponents and rights advocates on the national and international levels. In Egypt and other countries, the terms “statists” and “non-statists” have become potent symbolic expressions in conventional and social media, designating two opposing camps: the defenders of the state and stability versus the advocates of chaos who advance their agenda under the banner of civil society and human rights.

This categorization could not be further from the truth. In fact, if we take the symbolic expressions literally, the meaning would be completely reversed, for the label “statist” cannot rationally apply to those who undermine the pillars and foundations of the state; who trample over the constitution, the rule of law, and the independence of the justice system; who manage state security and military institutions with the logic of a criminal cartel; or who disappear or assassinate opponents and journalists, academics, and rights defenders who seek out the truth. Similarly, non-statists is an inaccurate description of people working assiduously to strengthen the foundations of the state by promoting respect for its national and international obligations, the transparency of its institutions and agencies, the effectiveness and independence of its institutions, and national cohesion and by working to eliminate all forms of religious, cultural, political, social, or economic legal and institutional discrimination. The paradox is most extreme in Syria, where those who are killing Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs and orchestrating ethnic cleansing and demographic engineering in order to create “a more homogenous society” are described as statists defending the national order.

Late Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh always believed that his people were unfit for the rule of law and a nation of institutions. He therefore considered the most important qualifications for those governing Yemen to be not statesmanship but rather a talent for “dancing on the heads of snakes.” By this he meant the autocrat’s ability to survive by honing the skills needed to take advantage of and exploit tribal, political, and sectarian conflicts in society at large and within the army, security services, and terrorist groups and manage the consequences on the regional and international fronts. Although Saleh coined the famous phrase, this understanding of leadership was not his alone. It is a common belief among several Arab rulers who came to power before and after him, and it encapsulates the reality of governance in many Arab states despite their different social and political structures.

In Egypt, the way the conflict over power has been managed from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Sisi is merely another iteration of the autocrat’s dance on the heads of the intelligence services, the military, and the police, as they all compete for a piece of the pie. These conflicts consume massive energies and state resources, which comes at the expense of good governance of the economy, politics, and society and result in military adventurism and historical defeats. This differs little from the conflicts between the Baath Party, the army, and sectarian and ethnic communities in Syria and Iraq; or between tribe and army in Qaddafi’s Libya; or ethnic, religious, and military conflicts in Sudan. Monarchs typically need not excel at the skill of dancing on snakes’ heads because it is God, rather than constitutions that determine the end of their rule. Yet when political tempests shake a non-constitutional monarchy in the Arab region, the king may be obliged to learn the dance. This was the case of King Hassan II in Morocco in the 1970s and it is true of Mohammed bin Salman—the de facto monarch of Saudi Arabia—after he demolished the foundations for the rule of the Abd al-Aziz bin Saud clan to put in place rule by the Bin Salman family.

As a rule, sacrificing sound institutional management of the state leads to a real decline in respect for human rights and facilitates rights violations. In this context, it must be noted that the minimum threshold of respect for human rights that existed to varying degrees in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Sudan did not survive the recent military and quasi-military coups in these countries. These coups set off a qualitative decline in overall state capacity and precipitated a headlong descent into systematic, grave violations of human rights in these countries.

The political conception of the state was no different for the major, quasi-military liberation organizations in the Arab region, in Algeria and Palestine. Despite the substantial difference in the historical and current contexts of the Algerian National Liberation Front and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, their common understanding of politics was clearly reflected in their governing practices after the two organizations assumed administrative control of the post-colonial state in Algeria and of a semi-autonomous territory under occupation in Palestine.

Tunisia and Morocco are exceptions. Despite the historical differences in the nature of the two regimes, their divergent political evolutions, and their two different models of governance, they nevertheless have both preserved, to varying degrees, an institutionally competent state, an openness to constitutional and legal reform projects, and a respect for the rules of democracy and human rights. There are serious doubts, however, about the survival of this exception, partly due to the depth of the sociopolitical crisis in both countries and partly due to the increasingly critical crisis consuming the entire region, which even these exceptions may find it difficult to withstand.

The moral responsibility of civil society?

Some analysts overemphasize the technical role of civil society organizations within their area of professional expertise while ignoring their overall social function. These analysts adopt an overly technical outlook, seeing civil society organizations as wholly divorced from the political, cultural, and social milieu in which they operate. This is reflected in the nature of plans, programs, and activities adopted by these organizations, which may seem more suited for other times and different continents altogether. This outlook does not treat civil society organizations as social entities, but as robots.

Many civil society groups perform this overarching social function by striving to fulfill their specialized mission as professionally and capably as possible. Others, particularly human rights organizations, go further by incorporating the needs of overall social development into their short- and long-term work plans. Looking at the historical role of civil society in the Arab region, this approach treats civil society organizations as agents of reform and levers of state and social progress, as well as drivers of development in their specific fields of operation. Documenting the historical role of civil society in the Arab region would require serious effort beyond the scope of this brief introduction, but a quick overview of significant historical moments in which their role was prominent may be useful for this introduction.

  • In 1995, the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, in cooperation with major Algerian political and social forces under the auspices of the Italian Community of Sant’Egidio, proposed an initiative to end the civil war. The initiative was widely welcomed within Algerian society and among some senior officials, but the military regime rejected it. More than a decade later, the regime then adopted a less comprehensive, more watered-down version of the initiative, but only after the Algerian people and the country had paid an exorbitant cost, the effects of which persisted for generations.
  • In 2003, King Mohammed VI in Morocco responded to the civil society initiatives floated for several years to form a commission that would cooperate with the state to expose the reality of serious human rights crimes committed under King Hassan II, provide reparations for victims, and promote social reconciliation. The initiative brought together prominent figures in the rights community from within and outside of Morocco and was spearheaded by a well-known independent rights defender and victim of torture.
  • In 2011, immediately after the ouster of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian civil society, in cooperation with other political actors, persuaded the transitional authority to form the High Commission to Achieve the Goals of the Revolution, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition. This revolutionary, quasi-legislative body included prominent members of civil society, rights defenders, politicians, and trade unionists; and was chaired by an independent rights advocate and academic. The commission drafted a roadmap for Tunisia and relevant laws during the crucial transition period until a parliament and president were elected nearly a year later, thereby securing what is known as the Tunisian exception.
  • In 2013, the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Order of Lawyers, and the Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts led a joint initiative for a national dialogue, after a crisis nearly subverted the Tunisian exception and amid appeals for intervention by the army, as had happened in Egypt three months earlier. This Quartet presented a roadmap to defuse the crisis that met with the support of the president, Cabinet, and parliament and successfully shepherded Tunisia through this critical crossroads.

It is also worth noting that this year civil society participated in parliamentary elections in Iraq on a joint list with various political parties, while in Lebanon it fielded an independent list in the parliamentary elections. Regardless of the electoral outcomes, it is necessary to assess the significance and potential of this development. This trend must be considered as we examine civil society’s moral responsibility toward the profound crisis currently sweeping the Arab region.


The Arab region is in the throes of a profound political paroxysm as the regional order and the social contract in many Arab states have unraveled though no alternative regional order or social contract has yet been devised to supplant them. There are no instruments to discuss possible alternatives among the major players on either the national or regional level, at a time when the international community is inepter than ever to offer alternatives or foster an appropriate climate for local and regional players to come together, discuss, and negotiate solutions to the six major crises facing the region.

The persistence of this state of affairs with no exit on the horizon not only cements the current catastrophes; it is creating a fertile climate for further violent social and political unrest, and perhaps new armed conflicts, more calamitous humanitarian disasters, and more terrorist activity. In the midst of this regional and international vacuum, perhaps no other party is more qualified to take the initiative than civil society, particularly rights-oriented civil society, on both the national and regional levels.

By dint of its role and composition, civil society has no ambitions to rule. Its activities are predicated on principles and values that cross ideological, religious, cultural, class, national, racial, and geographic lines. These values reject discrimination, violence, and political and religious extremism and prioritize dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution. These values are global and are accepted in theory at least, to varying degrees, by all governments and political elites in the region, including political Islamist groups that renounce terrorism. However, the details of civil society engagement lie beyond the scope of this introduction.

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The Militarization of Politics and an Authoritarian Revival

The State of Human Rights in the Arab World

This report examines and analyzes developments in human rights in several Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. In consideration of the adoption of new priorities for the Egypt-European Union Neighbourhood Policy in July 2017, it also includes a chapter on EU human rights policies in Egypt. All these analyses agree that the humanitarian and human rights situation in the Arab region remain in crisis as a result of the increasing militarization of politics; the failure to find peaceful, radical solutions to the region’s internal and international conflicts; and resurgent authoritarianism since the Arab Spring revolutions.

The primary feature of the human rights crisis is continued armed conflict, international and cross-border, with an increasingly complex spectrum of actors involved in the actions. Grave violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law are still being perpetrated in Syria by the warring parties through the targeting of civilians including women and children, and the use of siege tactics,  banned weapons, chemical weapons, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance. Conveying the suffering of civilians Eastern Ghouta, under fire by Syrian and Russian military forces, Raed Al Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, wrote in February 2018:  “The world has left hundreds of thousands of civilians to starve or be bombed to death by the Syrian regime and its allies…The Syrian people hold international leaders responsible for failing to prevent their suffering.”[1]

Al Saleh’s appeal - like that of others from conflict zones in the Arab world in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, and the occupied Palestinian territories - reflects the failure of the international human rights order to tackle armed conflict through early intervention to prevent escalations, steps to address the serious humanitarian fallout, and political leadership to generate and enforce peaceful solutions. While the failure has been compounded in recent years, it is inherent in the structure of the international decision-making order since the UN was established in the wake of World War II. This international order has always been subordinate to the narrow political, security, and geostrategic calculations of governments at the expense of humanitarian and rights considerations.  The human rights system and post-conflict interventions underwent institutional and legal expansion—whether military, political, or through the instruments of international criminal justice—to protect civilians in some conflict zones in the decade after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Yet in spite of this expansion, the international community has largely stood by powerless before armed conflicts and their catastrophic, lethal humanitarian consequences for peoples of the world.

The continuation of armed conflicts in the Arab region over the last decade is a manifestation and extension of this failure, exacerbated by shifts in international relations; most significantly, the rise of Russia and China as international players coupled with the waning leadership of the Western states. Russia and China are increasingly able to mobilize coalitions and support their autocrat allies the world, often to the detriment of human rights in these countries. Meanwhile, Western states -  typically more open to human rights issues in international relations- are currently experiencing sharper internal divisions due to deteriorating economic conditions and the rise of the far right, which weakens the prioritization of human rights on their agenda.

At the same time, regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are stepping into the vacuum, playing a growing political, military, and economic role. They are intervening directly or by proxy in military confrontations to expand their spheres of influence, facing off against one another and shoring up their own geopolitical interests. These regional powers bear great responsibility for the difficulty in reaching political resolutions to armed conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

In 2017 and early 2018, comprehensive political solutions to regional conflicts and the amelioration of the humanitarian consequences remained at an impasse. In Syria, the military advances of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Eastern Ghouta, coming on the ashes of the Syrian people and committed with total impunity, shifted the equation on the ground over the last year, moving further toward the total liquidation of the Syrian revolution. The Syrian army, with military support from Russia and Iran, was able to reassert military control over most Syrian territory. This military advance was supported by an alternative, Russia-sanctioned political discourse that denies the Syrian revolution and its aspirations for comprehensive political reform, which was reflected in 2017 in the standstill in the Geneva process, the UN-sponsored political negotiations.

The armed conflict in Yemen continued to turn that country into one of worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world; the inevitable, direct result of the policies, methods, and actions of the warring parties and their proxies. Since the beginning, the conflict has witnessed violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by all parties. These violations include arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, and extrajudicial killing; the planting of mines, the bombing of civilian homes, the deployment of military and paramilitary forces in civilian areas and attacks on civilian areas, including attacks on and the occupation of schools and the recruitment and use of child soldiers; and the denial of humanitarian aid. The regional standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and military and political intervention by the UAE, has further complicated the conflict in Yemen, making a political solution more difficult. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States continued to export weapons to Saudi Arabia while Iran armed the Houthis.

In Libya, despite all political forces’ stated support for the political agreement and action plan proposed by the UN special envoy on September 20, 2017, the reality on the ground suggests it will be difficult to reach a political resolution in the near future. Armed clashes between the major parties continue amid regional polarization and the growing influence of regional powers, which is deepening the gulf between the warring parties, and there is little coordination between international forces.[2] As a result of internal fighting, the Free Libyan Army and militias loyal to the  Government of National Accord have been involved in grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including widespread arbitrary detention, abduction, torture, and extrajudicial killing. The Libyan National Army has been implicated in military attacks on civilians and acts of repression, especially at the hand of Salafi groups, in detention centers and prisons under its control. The exploitation of migrants and human trafficking are on the rise, and there have been repeated instances of the brutal torture of African migrants and refugees.

Civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories continue to suffer from the Israeli government’s adoption of a series of laws and policies that sanction attacks on Palestinians and infringe upon their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The year 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the 69th anniversary of the nakba, or “catastrophe” marking the mass expulsion of Palestinians after the 1948 war. More than seven million Palestinian refugees remain outside Palestine waiting for a recognition of their right of return. Within Palestine, thousands of Palestinians are forcibly ejected from their homes by Israeli military forces, contributing to an escalating phenomenon of internal displacement, which likely amounts to a war crime. Currently more than 260,000 Palestinians are internally displaced.

At the same time, land expropriation and the theft of natural resources continue with the expansion of the settlement project in blatant disregard for international law. Peaceful protest movements against companies involved in illegal settlement activity were met with excessive force, and 2017 saw an increase in settler violence against Palestinian civilians. Palestinians living in areas under partial Palestinian control also experienced violations of their rights and liberties, as Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank placed increasing restrictions on the rights of freedom of expression and association.

Another feature of the human rights crisis is resurgent authoritarianism, as regimes in most Arab states continue to empower themselves and act to thwart any potential popular uprising or political mobilization. In Egypt, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has brought all manner of security and legal repression to bear on political, civil, and media platforms, and the security authorities continue to commit grave crimes with impunity. More frequent acts of terrorism, and increasingly of a sectarian nature, testify to the fragility of the national security situation and the failure of counterterrorism policies, as the state directs a large part of its security and legislative efforts and resources to repress peaceful political and civil actors and movements. The deplorable human rights conditions in Egypt are part of a systematic policy to eradicate the political and civil movements that emerged before and after the January 2011 revolution and avert any renewed political or social mobilization. The war on terrorism gives the government cover to impose broad legal measures that go beyond their stated counterterrorism goal to target peaceful dissent, civil society activists, and independent media rather than genuine terrorists. These violations have been repeatedly condemned by human rights experts and committees, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

A meeting of the European Union- Egypt Association Council in July 2017 marked the official launch of a renewed partnership project, after the council had suspended operations in April 2010 and the bilateral partnership framework between Egypt and the EU was left to languish for many years amid the political transformations in post-2011 Egypt. A group of international and Egyptian human rights organizations urged the EU not to hold the meeting. They contended that moving ahead with the EU-Egypt partnership as the Egyptian authorities carried out a rabid campaign against civil rights and liberties was essentially an undeserved reward for Sisi’s government and cover for his regime’s crimes, the scale of which are unprecedented in modern Egypt. The EU wasted a valuable opportunity to use the high-level political meeting to pressure for improvements in the human rights situation, even as Sisi and his government hoped to use the meeting to set new priorities for the Egyptian-EU partnership. In the wake of the meeting, a new financial aid package for the Egyptian government was approved for 2017–2020.

For their part, EU officials believe that such instruments and platforms for dialogue with the Egyptian government make it easier to raise human rights issues. Generally speaking, EU foreign policy rarely applies punitive policies in connection with human rights violations, in contrast to its more stringent conditions and oversight in relation to trade liberalization, quality standards for Egyptian exports to European markets, improvements in the climate for foreign investment, and cooperation in security and to counter undocumented migration. In light of the multiple political, economic, social, and security crises plaguing Egypt, and the threat these pose to the entire region’s security and stability, the EU should have exercised more political and moral responsibility in its approach to Egyptian domestic conditions. This responsibility is particularly compounded by the fact that many European states have recently directly boosted the capacities of repressive institutions in Egypt through military and security cooperation.

In Saudi Arabia, the suppression of freedom of expression and opportunities to build an independent civil society mark a continuation of the same approach taken by the authorities for the last decade. This approach was strengthened with the eruption of the Arab uprisings and revolutions, as preventive measures and regional policies were pursued to contain these revolutions and counter any potential opposition or rebellion in the kingdom. The struggle for power within the ruling family assumed new dimensions in the second half of 2017, resulting in a series of measures aimed at rapidly empowering the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and eliminating his rivals from within and outside of the ruling family.

Amid this internal conflict, the Saudi authorities recently took several small steps toward reform, to support women’s rights and reduce the prerogatives of the religious establishment. Nevertheless, these contradictory measures aimed first and foremost at burnishing the image of the ruling authorities and the crown prince and marketing him internationally as a reform-minded moderate. Yet the status of political and personal rights and liberties remains poor; the suppression and persecution of reformists and human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders continues; and hardline, extremist religious discourse within the kingdom remains prevalent, particularly the anti-Shia discourse sanctioned by the official religious establishment. All these indications suggest that no major turnaround or new style of governance is on the horizon.

In Bahrain, the authorities continued to target all forms of political and civic opposition through the expansion of arbitrary detention, fabricated charges and show trials, denaturalization and travel bans, intimidation and death threats, the torture of detainees, and reprisals against human rights defenders who cooperate with international organizations. In 2017, the country began steps to carry out the death sentence against three torture victims convicted after deeply flawed trials. Early this year, a royal edict was issued granting judicial police powers to members of National Security, in contravention of the recommendations of the independent Bahrain fact-finding commission to curtail the agency’s role and reform it due to its involvement in acts of torture. The domestic intelligence agency has made increasing use of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, and the mistreatment of human rights defenders and civil society and political activists. The king also approved a constitutional amendment permitting civilians to be tried before military courts. These practices have fueled social resentment and political violence in the country and deepened the long-standing sectarian rift resulting from the political, economic, and social marginalization of Bahrain’s Shia citizens.

The Sudanese government tightened its siege of civil society and the media, suppressed peaceful demonstrations and assemblies, and arrested government critics en masse in 2017. This coincided with the spread of popular protests in various areas of the country in response to deteriorating economic and social conditions. Amid the lack of any real constitutional reform, a new national unity government of 31 ministers and 44 ministers of state was formed in May 2017. With a mandate until 2020, the new government will oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the national dialogue that concluded in October 2016, including recommendations for constitutional and economic reform and national reconciliation. President Omar al-Bashir pledged that Sudan would be free of all armed conflicts by 2020 when the mandate of the unity government expires. In October, the US announced in a press statement that economic sanctions on Sudan and the Sudanese government, including the trade embargo and the freeze on Sudanese government assets, would be lifted effective October 12.[3] The decision came following an executive order issued on January 13, 2017 that cited “positive steps,” among them a marked decline in military attacks, a promise to suspend combat operations in conflict areas in Sudan, and measures to enable the entry of humanitarian assistance.

Yet in fact, these developments did not significantly improve the human rights situation in Sudan. The security apparatus continues to enjoy broad authorities to arrest individuals and detain them for prolonged periods under the 2010 National Security Act, after the National Assembly ignored the proposed amendments to curb the authorities of the security establishment and decided in April to preserve its exceptional powers. The terrorism law is also used to punish political opponents and human rights defenders.

Although Morocco has instituted a series of constitutional, legal, and institutional reforms since 2011 of the type rarely seen in the Arab world, respect for civil rights and liberties on the ground continued to retreat in 2017, raising concerns about Morocco’s status as a regional exemplar of the acceptance of political pluralism, civil society, protest movements, and critical media. National and international rights organizations expressed deep concern about the development of the rights situation in the country the past year following a series of breaches and violations of fundamental freedoms and rights. The Moroccan authorities stepped up the pressure on the movement for rights and democracy and on human rights defenders. A signifying event in 2017 was the eruption of social protests in the Rif and other marginalized areas in the northeast and south that have suffered from decades of poverty, poor public services, and high unemployment. Those involved in the protests encountered intimidation and security interference resulting in the large-scale arrests of Hirak activists and journalists covering the situation, as well as criminal prosecutions.

Tunisia has thus far been the sole success story of the Arab Spring, having made numerous political and constitutional gains and achieved relative stability. The country convened presidential and legislative elections in both 2011 and 2014, seen as fair and transparent by international observers. The Tunisian constitution guarantees basic liberties, including freedom of conscience and belief, and the civilian nature of the state. It upholds gender equality in all fields, including in elected assemblies. The constitution also guarantees several other rights, such as economic, social, and cultural rights, and some of its provisions are taken from international conventions like the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

Nevertheless, behind this success story lie numerous difficulties that pose a threat to these accomplishments. Indeed, many observers believe various reversals in laws regulating public life reflect the country’s fragile stability. Many Tunisians fear the resuscitation of dictatorship, especially as several old regime figures have returned to power in the government of Youssef Chahed.

Yet, the authoritarian revival in the Arab region has not succeeded in quashing protests motivated by economic and social demands or preventing public expression of these demands. In 2017, these protests continued in the Rif, Hoceima, and Jarada in Morocco and in parts of Algeria, in particular in Amazigh areas, as well as in Sudan, Iraq, Jordan, eastern Saudi Arabia, and in the Sinai Peninsula and Nubia in southern Egypt. The protests produced a new generation of civil, rights-oriented, and political leaders who employed modern technology to mobilize and campaign.

Governments in these states met the leaders and participants in protests, especially youth, with violence, arrests, fabricated charges, and politically motivated trials. These protests reflect a structural failure in the economic management in these countries. This failure is caused by the ruling elite’s inability to meet the basic needs of their peoples, the poor distribution and administration of wealth and resources, and the marginalization of entire regions in many Arab states,[4] where residents are denied the returns on natural resources abundant in these areas.

This critical social situation has led some analysts to speak of a coming wave of Arab Spring revolutions.[5] The systematic suppression of civil society and human rights activists in most Arab states has not put an end to protests and other forms of resistance to political tyranny and human rights violations. While such protests are so far geographically limited and have short-term goals, they are likely to escalate in the right local and international political context. The experiences of recent decades demonstrate that regimes’ delay in responding to the demands of peaceful movements and continued marginalization and repression only exacerbates social, political, and sectarian divisions, which in turn threatens stability or boosts the ability of violent groups to recruit members, particularly among youth.

[1] “My Staff Are Trying to Save Lives in the Rubble of Ghouta,” The Guardian, Feb. 22, 2018, link.
[2] As indicated by the provisional report of the team of experts formed pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1973/2011, Mar. 2018, link
[3] “Trump Administration Formally Lifts Sanctions on Sudan,” New York Times, Oct. 6, 2017, link.
[4] “Resource Regionalism in the Middle East and North Africa,” Brookings Doha Center, Apr. 2018, link.
[5] Financial Times, Mar. 5, 2018, link.

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European Human Rights Policies on Egypt

European human rights policies toward Egypt in 2017 have not been very legible or clear to the outside observer. Much of the European Union (EU)’s public communication on or toward Egypt has taken quite a positive tone:  focusing on supporting Egypt in a difficult economic and security situation, and lauding it as a key partner for stability in a complex regional context. Human rights issues and cases have seemed to be muted or nearly absent from the EU agenda. Yet there have also been repeated efforts by EU institutions and some Member States to raise issues—both ongoing and new ones—and urgent cases with the Egyptian authorities on different levels and through different channels, many of which are non-public. In fact, pressure by rights NGOs and the media did ensure that human rights issues and the crackdown on civil society have remained on the EU agenda throughout the year. This prioritization on the EU agenda was also sometimes a result of various protagonists –national, regional, international or multinational - speaking out or taking public positions at opportune times.

            To what extent then did the EU actually prioritize human rights in 2017 within its policy toward Egypt – opposite the overwhelming focus on counter-terrorism and on containing and preventing migration to Europe? This question must also be taken into consideration within the context of the continued rise of xenophobia and the far right in Europe, which feeds the latter two trends –  the emphasis on counterterrorism and migration - in EU policy. What factors and protagonists determined EU policy on Egypt throughout the year? The approaches adopted by the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the European Commission toward Egypt this past year were actually influenced, to a great extent, by particular Member States’ positions and attitudes toward Egypt, which will also be discussed in this chapter. The positions taken by the European Parliament were of interest but not decisive, since it has no decision-making power on European foreign policy, and will be reviewed at the end.

Readers must keep in mind that the EU’s preference for non-public channels to raise rights issues with Egypt in 2017 means civil society observers are less aware of certain efforts; in the best of faith, it is possible to short-change this or that government or institution in one’s evaluation of their foreign policy performance.  Naturally, we are not always aware of the worst aspects of the EU’s relation with Egypt either, in particular when it comes to the sale of certain surveillance technology, arms and equipment sales to Egypt by Member States. This analysis must be taken with these two caveats.

EU-Egypt relations within the revised ENP

Under the revised version of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), there will no longer necessarily be public country reports with detailed accounts of the human rights situation of MENA states like Egypt, which just have an Association Agreement, but not an "advanced status" or a "privileged partnership" with the EU. This was already indicated in the 2015 Joint Communication on the Review of the ENP’s language on public reports. It is reflective of a broader trend of EU and Member State policy-making on Egypt, which has been reinforced in 2017. This policy can be summarized as followed: a gradual upscaling of cooperation and support, with a return to full normalization of formal relations where they had been temporarily frozen, and a dominant (though not universal) tendency to avoid public criticism of Egypt’s human rights record.

Thus, EU figures and Member State diplomats have at times, in late 2016 and in 2017, expended considerable efforts on raising human rights issues and cases with the Egyptian authorities, consulting civil society organizations regularly, and trying new and varied lines of reasoning. Yet the public visibility of such undertakings has been extremely low. EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis’ visit to Cairo was planned without public statements (tweets only), and much use was made of formal and informal non-public diplomacy on the NGO law and case 173/2011 (the “Foreign Funding Case”), on the closure of Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, and on the continued retaliatory detention of rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy. All the while, the EU’s intention to enhance mutual cooperation and support for Egypt has been constantly reaffirmed in public, with multiple statements of solidarity with Egypt in its “war on terror” and praise for the “difficult reforms” engaged alongside the IMF loan agreed to in late 2016. What were the reasons and factors behind this trend?

According to the revised ENP, the root causes of instability in the MENA region are interpreted as corruption, insufficient socioeconomic development and opportunities for young people, and injustice (not human rights violations); and these problems are believed to fuel radicalization, protest and violent extremism. Therefore, “the stabilization of the region, in political, economic, and security related terms, will be at the heart of the new policy.” Mirroring the EU Global Strategy of 2016, which puts forward the concept of “principled pragmatism” with a strong emphasis on Europe’s own security and much less on democracy, the ENP mentions democracy, human rights and the rule of law as “values” but not as imperative norms. This remains the case even where Neighborhood states have explicitly and repeatedly committed to them through treaties, conventions and international agreements—including bilaterally with the EU. Yet human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the protection of civil society continue to appear in all EU policy documents for MENA states, including Egypt, and are presented as key in global policy documents, as well as thematic global guidelines and policy documents or Conclusions (on civil society, on human rights defenders, against torture, on LGBT rights, etc.). The revised ENP indicates the EU officially plans to support democracies if and when they emerge in the Arab region, but will not try to question MENA state governments pursuing repression and counter-revolution. The EU officially believes that with “repressive states [that] are inherently fragile in the long term,” it has “limited leverage,” so its policies must focus on fostering long-term resilience in such countries by supporting civil society, and fighting poverty and inequality, in a spirit of “principled pragmatism.

The EU approach toward Egypt in 2017 has reflected the revised ENP concept, and this tension between it and the EU global human rights policies. Indeed, it is quite possibly true that it would be ineffective for the EU to try to impose democratization, the return of the rule of law, and respect for fundamental rights in Egypt at this stage. However, the EU’s attempts to foster the resilience and stabilization of Egypt in 2017 have not denoted a very clear and complete understanding of what stabilization and building resilience should mean in this case. If resilience isthe ability of states and societies to reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crisis” then it is not at all clear we are headed in this direction: theoretical ability to reform means little in Egypt at this juncture, without the political will and commitment to do so at the highest levels of the State. Certainly, EU development cooperation projects for Egypt have continued to focus on important social, economic, health, sanitation, educational and infrastructure needs. Supporting Egyptian citizens’ ability to survive and strive for a more dignified, less harsh existence, is a valid goal but remains insufficient as the main means to build resilience among the Egyptian people; it is very often against State injustice, violence and repression, as well as State neglect of their problems, that Egyptians need to be resilient. At the same time, European efforts in 2017 to support the Egyptian State’s resilience against external and internal threats have seemed to lead to bolstering the resilience of this repressive regime against its people.

Paradoxically, there has been awareness on the European side of some these problems. In 2017, EU officials (and many from Member States) seemed to better understand that the scale and gravity of human rights violations, denial of the rule of law and generalized repression in Egypt is aggravating its instability, insecurity and vulnerability to terrorism, which in turn are jeopardizing its chances of eventual economic recovery and stabilization. There is also more awareness that closing off the public space and political sphere leaves no channels for peaceful expression of popular grievances. And indeed, their public discourse on Egypt has almost invariably framed increasing respect for human rights as a requirement for stability, security and effective counterterrorism policy. Yet little use of EU leverage (which is admittedly limited, but not insignificant) has been apparent in this direction, as well as the lack of the significant leverage of Member States.  As the EEAS stated in July 2017: “the combined volume of EU, Member States and European financial institutions financial assistance to Egypt in its different forms (grants, loans and debt swaps) positions Europe as the first and most significant donor in Egypt with a volume of ongoing European financial assistance to Egypt of over EUR 11 billion.” It seems, as remarked by Yasser al-Shimy and Anthony Dworkin, “the instinct for engagement with Egypt on subjects of urgent European concern has increasingly come to take precedence over any reservations about the direction in which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is leading his country.” Indeed, in 2017, the EU and certain Member States have apparently proceeded to plan development cooperation projects with Egypt without always having “a clear and consistent vision of the conditions under which joint ventures can proceed” in these policy areas.

A near-complete return to formal EU normalization with Egypt, in spite of the human rights situation

It sometimes seems that path dependence can be a strong factor within the EU institutions’ policy-making. European fears regarding Egypt’s growing financial and economic crisis in 2016 apparently fueled and reinforced the decision to return to “increasing engagement” (after a cooling-off period in spring 2016 after the killing of Giulio Regeni). This produced a strong determination to find ways to support Egypt as much as possible (within the guidelines in force and available budgets) through all policy instruments, in an attempt to postpone or prevent its collapse and the consequent disaster scenarios. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has also wholeheartedly followed this orientation, producing an updated Country Strategy for Egypt in early 2017 that included an extremely questionable Political Assessment (both in terms of the analysis and the inaccuracy of some facts cited) as an appendix.

 This track has been followed by EU institutions throughout 2017, even when and where it seemed counter-intuitive and/or unlikely to succeed. Sometimes the projects planned with the decided budget look like short- to medium-term responses (such as school meals for children in need), which do not seem accompanied by responses to the very serious medium- to long-term issues in the same area (no accountability in the government for corruption or failed macroeconomic and financial policies, insufficient State investment in public health and education systems, absence of a progressive income tax system and weak State capacity to collect taxes, little accountability for high-level tax evasion, etc.). To be sure, the EU and Member States cannot force the Sisi regime to remedy all the latter problems, but they could push back against measures taken by Egypt to reinforce them. Emergence of grassroots mobilizations for change in these areas has been prevented by repression of workers’ movements, trade union activists, economic rights NGOs, and protests about socio-economic issues, as well as repressive legislation against trade unions and workers’ strikes. This is particularly striking in contrast with some oft-repeated questions put to rights advocates in European capitals and in Brussels: “Where is the alternative to Sisi’s government? Yes, their policies are counterproductive, but where is the opposition? Where are the 2011 activists? Where are the social movements? Change must come from inside Egypt, it cannot be imposed by Europe…”

Another prominent example was cooperation with civil society. In 2016, negotiations on the 2017-20 EU-Egypt Partnership Priorities (the broad policy document for bilateral cooperation) had actually remained blocked for several months on one last sentence pertaining to both parties’ cooperation with civil society. In November 2016, the Egyptian Parliament adopted a draconian new draft NGO law after perfunctory debate. Its implementation is expected to not only close independent human rights NGOs and ban advocacy on civil and political rights, but also to put all Egyptian CSOs under tight State control for all aspects of their registration, funding, activities and cooperation with outside entities (starting at the end of 2018 when the one-year period to apply for registration, expires). All of this means a gradual strangulation of many of them.

Although the new NGO law alarmed EU policy-makers, they decided to finalize the Partnership Priorities negotiations in December 2016 with compromise language on cooperation with civil society agreed ad referendum, based on non-public assurances from Egypt that the draft NGO law had not been forwarded to the Presidency for ratification, and would not be passed as such. In 2017, the EU proceeded to prepare for the EU-Egypt Association Council where the Partnership Priorities would be formally signed. The EU and Member States proceeded along these lines to plan development cooperation projects for Egypt involving NGOs as implementing and/or monitoring partners, without formal proof from Egypt that the draft NGO law was withdrawn. Then in late May, the law was actually ratified by President Sisi (becoming law no. 70/2017). Worse still, this came in the midst of a slew of repressive measures between April and June, escalating Egypt’s crackdown on dissent of all kinds in the name of fighting terrorism.

The EU and Member States were taken by surprise—at least by law 70/2017’s ratification—and ostensibly found neither the means nor the political will to adjust their course. The abundance of information available on other human rights developments at that point, though, makes it difficult to attribute the pursuing of a business-as-usual approach with Egypt merely to inertia and path dependency on the part of the EU institutions. In spite of broad, coordinated advocacy by European, Arab and international rights groups calling on EU institutions and Member State foreign ministries to postpone the Association Council, they went ahead. Most of the documents due to be published in relation to the Council were being prepared in a context where drafters were exposed to sustained pressures from the Egyptian authorities and the EU Member States closest to the latter’s position, against the inclusion of any critical language on Egypt’s rights record. Predictably, this led to the virtual elimination of substantive human rights discourse from all these press releases or reports. At the July 25, 2017 Association Council press conference, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, similarly skirted the topic as much as possible, while Commissioner Johannes Hahn (whose mandate includes the ENP), true to form, avoided it entirely.

The sole exception on this occasion was the EU Statement (on which rights NGOs’ advocacy had been focused), negotiated behind closed doors between Member States’ diplomats, under virtual lockdown at the Council until the last minute, and published at the end of the Association Council day with a fair overview of most of the gravest human rights issues in Egypt. This was indirectly facilitated by the considerable embarrassment of many Member States a month earlier, when the EU failed to deliver any statement at all under Agenda Item 4 (“Situations Requiring the Council’s Attention”) of the UN Human Rights Council’s 35th session in Geneva. The draft EU statement under Item 4 had reportedly been negotiated at length over the previous weeks and weakened to a great extent through energetic pressure by Greece and Hungary, who were opposing public criticism of China and Egypt’s rights record by the EU at HRC35. With Hungarian objections finally being overcome thanks to a compromise text, Greece then suddenly vetoed it the day before its delivery. It was too late for negotiation of a joint statement by some of the other EU Member States at the Council. This was the first time the EU had made no Item 4 statement in about a decade, and the first time it did not mention Egypt under Item 4 since the September 2013 session following the Rabaa massacre. The last-minute “veto” of the statement came as a shock for many Member States who tend to rely on the EU’s Item 4 EU statement as an indirect means of speaking out publicly on rights concerns in Egypt through a joint position without having to do it individually (that could contradict the order of priorities within their bilateral relations with Egypt; some do not feel empowered to stand alone against Egyptian diplomacy, or have a policy of neutrality). The June incident suddenly left them without this recourse. Rumor has it that this caused sufficient resentment of Greece and Hungary’s tactics to produce a determination among other States that in July, the draft EU Statement for the Association Council should not be leaked out of the Council to Egyptian diplomats before it could be finalized, in order to minimize pressure for the exclusion of human rights language.

The European Commission and funding decisions for Egypt in 2017

After the Association Council, the European Commission continued elaborating the Single Support Framework, outlining the EU’s priorities and financial allocations for key areas of bilateral cooperation with Egypt in 2017-20, based on the Partnership Priorities. On October 29, 2017, Commissioner Hahn signed the corresponding Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt’s Investment and International Cooperation Minister, Sahar Nasr. The sum allocated to promoting human rights is only one section of the budget for “Governance, enhancing stability and modern democratic state,” itself just 10% of the total indicative SSF budget. It remains to be seen what exactly will be done with these funds, but the amount is certainly worrying. Hahn also signed the financing agreements for three cooperation projects, of which two are related to infrastructure within the SSF.

The third is a 60 million-euro program called "Enhancing the response to migration challenges in Egypt," funded from the EU Emergency Trust Fund’s North Africa Window, which is to include the implementation of seven separate projects. The program’s Action Fiche poses a great deal of questions, however, a number of which are discernible in this passage:

“The main stakeholders of this Action will be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Investment and International Cooperation, all concerned line Ministries and local authorities, such as the Ministry of Manpower, Ministry of State for Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs, and the Ministry of Housing, the NCCPIM-TIP with a number of its members, the Social Fund for Development and the National Council for Women, as well as selected EU Member States and their implementing agencies and relevant CSOs. International organisations will be associated as appropriate.”

 The first project involves funding for the NCCPIM-TIP, Egypt’s National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration and Trafficking in Persons, an inter-ministerial agency originally established in 2014 under the Cabinet’s direct supervision (for the “National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration” section). According to international humanitarian organizations supporting refugees in Egypt, this NCCPIM-TIP is a very opaque Committee, which is difficult for civil society to access. It includes officials from several ministries, of which it is very difficult to obtain an exhaustive list. It seems highly likely, in view of the Egyptian State’s current mode of operation, that the NCCPIM-TIP includes Interior and Defense Ministry officials, given that security and intelligence bodies are very much involved in border control and surveillance, as well as in political “policing” of Egyptian and foreign nationals on Egyptian territory. Therefore, EUTF money may be expected to go to Interior and Defense Ministry staff in one way or another, which is a very problematic decision given their considerable and documented involvement in grave and widespread systematic rights violations. The same question should be posed about the vague list of stakeholders, which includes “all concerned line Ministries and local authorities.” It is vital that precautions be taken to avoid channeling EU funding to parties committing massive rights violations with impunity, or covering for those who commit them. Providing financial support to such parties will encourage them to continue the same practices and risk EU complicity.

            The second question is the role of NGOs in project implementation and monitoring. Until today, national and international NGOs subcontracting with the UNHCR, or in coordination with it, or independently, have been key service and support providers to migrants and refugees on Egyptian territory, including highly vulnerable populations. Yet none of these NGOs know whether they will be permitted to register, receive funding and cooperate with the UNHCR on Egyptian territory in 2018, after the new NGO law’s one-year grace period expires, not to mention work in relative autonomy, according to the goals and methods they have defined. Any sound adjustment of goals and methods should be based on needs assessments of the target populations, which would be classified as “survey” or “research” activities under law 70/2017, therefore banned without previous permission from the National Regulatory Agency yet to be created in accordance with the new law, and to includemembers of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice, Interior, and International Cooperation, as well as the ministry tasked with enforcement of the law, General Intelligence, the Central Bank, the Money Laundering Unit, and the Administrative Control Authority (Article 72).” Unless law 70/2017 is repealed or its application officially suspended, it will be very difficult for the most competent CSOs to continue their work effectively after May 2018. Thus, it is very unclear who the “relevant NGOs” to be associated to this EUTF-funded projects’ implementation might be. One likely scenario could be the repurposing of Egyptian GONGOs (quasi-governmental-NGOs) or creation of new ones for this purpose. Without assuming GONGOs must necessarily be incompetent or ineffective, it is difficult to imagine newly-created groups being as effective and competent as those with years of experience on the ground, working with highly vulnerable people.

Finally, the question of independent monitoring of these projects’ implementation, in terms of both effectiveness and human rights impact, also remains unanswered. One might optimistically imagine new GONGOs working effectively, but not independently, monitoring this. Who then would do so, unless the new NGO law is repealed? The UNHCR (not to say it is impervious to all State pressures in Egypt, but it undoubtedly has expertise) does not actually appear anywhere in the Action Fiche of this EUTF-funded program, as remarked by Marie Martin of EuroMed Rights, except as a source of pre-existing statistics and data on which the projects are based. It is not listed anywhere as a partner, implementer, monitor or anything else. In fact, the project is titled “Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt” but mostly seems to target vulnerable Egyptians as beneficiaries (in addition to NCCPIM-TIP members), not refugees and migrants on Egyptian territory. This is not necessarily a problem, but the reasons why refugees are not also a main target population for the program are unclear, since “Egypt has become a migration crossroad, and increasingly a destination country for migrants”, according to the text. Humanitarian CSOs on the ground also note increasing arrivals of third-country nationals in Egypt in 2017, in particular Eritreans, and unaccompanied minors. They note the UNHCR’s budget has been cut, whereas needs are increasing; the UNHCR is the only entity registering refugees in Egypt as the country has no asylum law. Unregistered asylum seekers in Egypt are exposed to high risks of arbitrary detention in poor and dangerous conditions, denial of their fundamental rights and possibly forced deportation to unsafe countries of origin or transit. In such a situation, independent monitoring of the human rights impact of this EUTF program by competent organizations on the ground remains crucial.

In addition, indications emerged in November 2017 that the “High-Level EU-Egypt Migration Dialogue” is expected to start very soon. This process may well lead to the negotiation of further migration-focused programs and projects for Egypt, so it is all the more important for a human-rights focus to be included more significantly in the EU’s policy approach toward Egypt in this field. One would hope that the Dialogue would also lead to the opening of new or expanded legal channels for mobility of Egyptians to Europe, since this is also part of the Valletta commitments (which are supposed to the framework for EU-Egypt cooperation in the field of migration) but sadly, does not appear anywhere in the existing program.

Member States/EU dynamics and European policy-making on human rights in Egypt

From the EEAS and Commission side, policy flaws and the lack of a strong stance on human rights, materialized in some form of conditionality, are often blamed on differences between Member State views and priorities, precluding the formation of a clear, common EU position in this respect. This has been clear in the past years, particularly in combination with Member State economic interests and rivalries for key energy, gas or arms deals affecting willingness to broach rights issues publicly on the bilateral level, and to raise them forcefully enough in private. This carries over into the intra-EU discussion (between Member State diplomats) on reactions to an urgent case or issue in Egypt, with some Member States insisting on removing clearly critical language, or blocking a statement altogether. In 2017, the language of public statements from the EEAS (always spokesperson statements, never by the High Representative Federica Mogherini herself) on such urgent cases and issues in Egypt has usually ended up excessively mild and weak, when they have appeared at all. On the ratification of the draconian NGO law (no. 70/2017), for instance, the EEAS statement was significantly milder than those of three leading Republican Senators and the Secretary of State in the U.S.A., the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  the European Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee Chair, the German Human Rights Commissioner, the British FCO, and even the right-wing Belgian Foreign Minister. From the EEAS side, the Special Representative for Human Rights does use stronger language, but the limitation of his public communication on Egypt to social media (Twitter) makes it low-profile and less impactful. The Egyptian Executive—whose Foreign Ministry, unlike Mr Lambrinidis, does have latitude to make sharp public statements or to have the MENA news agency or State-affiliated media publish their “own” interpretation of non-public EU-Egypt discussions on human rights—seems well aware he cannot speak, or respond, with the full force of the Union and its Member States.

In addition, in the second half of 2017, Egypt has apparently had increasing success in leveraging its role in the Libyan conflict and its ability to mediate for inter-Palestinian reconciliation, so as to present itself to Member States and the EU as an indispensable partner for regional stability. This has not always played against the voicing of criticism of Egypt’s human rights record per se, though it has been quite effective in reinforcing the arguments of advocates for increased engagement with Egypt and provision of financial support. In some cases, the Member State governments blocking a common EU stance on an issue or case, or watering it down, have seemed to rely (sincerely or not) on a sort of “skewed and self-serving cultural relativism” of low expectations, blended with Orientalism. It was all the easier that President Sisi (and some Foreign Ministry figures) served it to them themselves, with affirmations that the Egyptian people are not ready for democracy, and that “human rights” mean something else to Egyptians (mostly the right to be protected from terrorists by a strong State, and some socio-economic rights, but not so much civil and political rights). Occasionally, European governments like that of Mr Orban in Hungary have seemed motivated by some ideological proximity to President Sisi, viewing authoritarian rulers as desirable for Arab states. In addition, President Sisi continues to be presented (more or less sincerely) by a number of Eastern and Southern European leaders as a protector of the beleaguered Christian minority in Egypt, who allegedly has “saved them” from the prospect of extreme oppression under Muslim Brotherhood rule. More generally, it has been apparent (for years, not only in 2017) that migration and counterterrorism are dominating both the domestic and foreign policy agenda in Europe. Feeding into this, xenophobia, Islamophobia and the continued rise of the far right in Europe have become powerful direct and indirect factors for certain Member State governments and European agencies. The heightened focus on migration and a more militarized understanding of security within foreign policy-making, is clearly influenced at times by the belief that it will be possible, useful and sustainable to hunker down in safety within a closed-off Fortress Europe.

2017 trends in EU policy-making toward Egypt have naturally been closely connected to Member State positions, attitudes and priorities toward Egypt. Certain Member States such as Greece and Hungary—as well as Cyprus, Poland, Slovakia or others, at times—have been more energetic in blocking or arguing against the publishing of statements on rights issues or cases in Egypt, and in favor of closer cooperation and more financial and political support for the country. Some smaller Member States such as Holland, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden—and at times Denmark, Finland, Austria or others—have continued to favor clearer, more consistent EU public messaging on human rights. But they have remained unable to outweigh their opponents, in the absence of strong leadership on the matter within the EU conversation in 2017 from the UK, Germany, and Italy (not to mention France). The UK, with its right-wing Conservative government and energy/arms industry interests bound up with Egypt, in addition to its generally weakened standing inside the EU due to Brexit, remained unable to lead within the EU policy debate on Egypt, in favor of a higher prioritization of human rights. Few new developments occurred from the UK side in 2017 on this aspect.

  • Germany’s stance on the relative priority to be given to human rights within EU policy toward Egypt continued to gradually weaken in 2017, compared to the somewhat more robust position taken in early 2016 after the Giulio Regeni case. This trend dates from late 2016, and has been driven by the growing predominance of the migration and counter-terrorism files within its foreign policy-making agenda toward the Mediterranean region.
  • As for the French authorities, they continued to favor addressing human rights issues to some extent within the EU-Egypt relationship in 2017, but the country has apparently not shown much leadership in this direction. Indeed, to do so would have been too much at odds with its approach at the bilateral level.
  • Finally, the Italian government has continued to favor EU messaging on human rights in Egypt, though not usually in any format that would give the country specific visibility within the EU position—ostensibly to compensate its inability to address this publicly within bilateral relations with Egypt. But this trend has been waning gradually since autumn 2016 (after a peak in the first half of 2016 consequent to the Giulio Regeni case). Italy has not returned to its pre-2016 energetic advocacy for the Egyptian government, but seems to have shown less appetite for public communication by the EU on rights issues with Egypt, unless there is a connection to the Giulio Regeni case.


The Federal Government’s continuing shift of focus toward less criticism and more accommodation of Egypt’s deep State in 2017 has been reflected in the conclusion or signature of three bilateral agreements:

  1. A Protocol on the status of German political foundations in Egypt, accepting extremely restrictive rules and conditions akin to those contained in the new NGO law (although it had not yet been ratified when the Protocol was negotiated)
  2. Parliamentary ratification by the Bundestag of the Germany-Egypt security cooperation agreement previously negotiated
  3. Negotiation and signature of an agreement about dialogue on migration. Talks on implementation are to begin, including expected cooperation on deportation and “voluntary repatriation” of Egyptians in Germany who are obliged to leave the country, and on “voluntary repatriation” return of third-country nationals present on Egyptian territory—among other aspects.

The focus has clearly been on increasing engagement with Egypt as a partner for regional security in the MENA region, understood as preventing development of migratory flows to Europe from Egypt or through Egypt, and containing terrorist threats (business/financial interests may have been less of a motivator than for France in 2017—Germany’s bigger arms and energy deals with Sisi’s Egypt having been made previously). Germany continued to address HR issues in Egypt, but as a subordinate aspect, ostensibly with an effort to fit this into the priority concerns just listed. For instance, a training workshop for the Egyptian MoI—probably State Security Investigations (SSI)—on internet surveillance originally planned for Dec. 2016 was postponed several times, then its cancellation was announced in autumn 2017, over concerns that the skills and knowledge thus acquired would be used not only against terrorist groups, but also against peaceful dissidents among Egypt’s citizens, to prosecute them. However, as noted by Left-party (Die Linke) member Matthias Monroy and Egyptian rights activist Leil-Zahra Mortada, this “remains a single measure and has no bearing on what is otherwise very extensive cooperation”, with Egyptian General Intelligence as well as the MoI.

The German federal government, repeatedly questioned in Parliament by the Greens and Die Linke (far left) on its cooperation with Egypt, maintained this is all carefully run so as to ensure “human rights violations will not be abetted” and it also focuses on “imparting and fostering the values and principles of the rule of law.” German Die Linke parliamentarian S. Liebich reported, following a government response to his question, that the third-quarter arms export figures from Germany to Egypt amount to almost 300 million euros—at least five times the amount for the third quarter of 2016—making Egypt Germany’s biggest non-EU and non-NATO client in that period. It is unclear at the time of writing, however, whether that includes a submarine delivered in 2017 from a previous sale.

Germany’s Human Rights Commissioner remains more regularly outspoken on individual issues or urgent cases in Egypt than the EEAS or many other EU Member States, similar to the British Foreign Office; however, this seems to be somewhat disconnected to the main bilateral priorities in 2017. Other than its HR Commissioner statements, Germany shows a clear preference for delegating the addressing of rights issues to the EU level; and also at that level, situating rights issues within the broader priority of “engagement,” relaxing its spring 2016 pressure not to completely normalize EU relations with Egypt. The country has shown less appetite in 2017 for speaking up on rights issues in formal EU-Egypt high-level public meetings. Constant and strong advocacy from CSOs has still seemed required to maintain the addressing of rights issues by Germany at both levels in 2017, though the Foreign Ministry seems closer to human rights NGOs’ analysis than the Chancellery and Interior Ministry who seem to have more problematic assessments of Egypt’s situation, and are least open to discussion on the matter.


Under the new Macron presidency in 2017, France’s policy toward Egypt has essentially continued on the same track as before, with the tone of bilateral relations apparently set to a fair extent by the new Foreign Minister, Le Drian. In his former position as Defense Minister during the Hollande presidency, Le Drian led the development of military alliances and warm personal relations with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in recent years. He provided the key impulse from the French side, for the country’s massive arms sales to Egypt in 2014-16; these have been framed in a narrative about investing in Egypt as a major military and naval force in the MENA region, and a key partner for stability and security, whose cooperation is vital on Libya and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. France is not the only EU Member State to have closed huge arms or energy deals with Sisi’s Egypt—Germany, Italy and the UK are also at the top of the list—but the French authorities have stood out by flaunting these sales as an achievement of France’s arms industry, and a source of national pride.

            Emmanuel Macron’s first few weeks as President of the Republic have confirmed a continuing focus on Libya, with the same political orientation, as the new President received General Haftar in Paris. Egypt is apparently still perceived as a key player in this pursuit of a Libyan “solution” that suits France, in cooperation with Haftar. Meanwhile, the French authorities ostensibly still prefer delegating the addressing of human rights issues in Egypt to the European level, where they will not stand out; however, this means France does not appear to act as a major blocker in Brussels, since they need that channel to exist. As soon as Le Drian became Foreign Affairs Minister, he—and the new Defense Minister Florence Parly—went on visits to Egypt. President Sisi’s October 2017 official visit to Paris was orchestrated on the same sort of tone, as underlined by journalist Jenna Le Bras: the protocol and public appearances gave a great deal of prestige and honors to Sisi, whose arriving plane was escorted by French Rafale warplanes. The Egyptian President was then reportedly greeted by the CEO of Dassault (the Rafale manufacturer), highlighting the military-industrial alliance publicly. A broad range of meetings were scheduled by the Egyptian delegation, with the Chamber of Commerce and the MEDEF (French business owners’ association) as well as parliamentary, ministerial and presidential meetings.

Significant engagement and campaigning by human rights NGOs ahead of the visit achieved a much greater impact than in previous years, with French mainstream print media and television. Human rights violations in Egypt were highlighted everywhere, including by the right-wing, public TF1 channel, and NGO messaging was relayed effectively. The media coverage also included critical discussion of France’s close alliance with the Egyptian authorities. President Macron’s cabinet apparently tried to pre-empt any sullying of the new head of State’s image by announcing, three days before Sisi’s arrival, that Macron would discuss human rights issues with him. This discussion—which reportedly did take place, and included Egypt’s draconian NGO law—remained firmly behind closed doors, with a show of good entente at the joint press conference and quite “soft” discourse from Mr. Macron, who seemed to borrow from the Egyptian diplomatic corps’ talking points as he asserted that “France does not lecture Egypt.” His only public reference to human rights issues in Egypt was framed within the counterterrorism, security and stability narrative.

It seems the French National Assembly may be less opposed to scrutiny and discussion of foreign policy toward Egypt; many new députés of Macron’s En Marche movement likely have no strong stance on human rights in Egypt, one way or the other. The rest of the French government institutions seem to remain fairly closed to the human rights agenda. Press reports of the Economy and Finance Ministry’s decision to stop blocking negotiations for a further sale of Rafale aircraft to Egypt indicates the persistence of a key driving force for the continuation of bilateral relations on the current track. This does not exclude the raising of human rights issues behind closed doors, as a part of a more effective counter-terrorism policy in Egypt, but it does ensure such discussions remain discreet add-ons to the main direction of bilateral policy-making.


            The impact of the Giulio Regeni case on Italy-Egypt bilateral relations continued to wane gradually in 2017, as investigations progressed slowly on the Italian side. Mainstream Italian media have continued to cover the case, as well as human rights issues in Egypt in general, though sometimes the Regeni case coverage has been relatively questionable in 2017, with a recurring tendency to blame the victim for his “suspicious” profile in Egypt before his death, or at least to offer some justification along these lines for Egyptian security forces’ suspicions about him. In the coverage of the investigation process and the case itself, a second narrative of blaming Giulio’s PhD advisers, and/or Cambridge University as a whole also appeared—as if the Egyptian security apparatus were an oncoming train, onto whose tracks academics somehow pushed him. This was strongly denounced by hundreds of academics.

Though it has become clear that cooperation from the Sisi regime on the investigation will be not be sincere, diligent—and probably not forthcoming at all—the Italian authorities have gradually shifted toward normalization of formal relations. They announced the decision to send the appointed Ambassador Giampaolo Cantini to Cairo at Ferragosto, the mid-August public holiday, which comes in the midst of a summer lull in political and media activity. The very same day, the New York Times published an exposé on the case that echoed around the Italian media, because it revealed U.S. authorities had alerted their Italian counterparts in early 2016 that they had “incontrovertible evidence of official Egyptian responsibility” in Giulio’s abduction, torture and killing. Though the incriminating material itself was not sent to Rome, the conclusion of State knowledge of the case at the highest echelons was apparently communicated at the time. The sending of Ambassador Cantini to Cairo and its timing, as well as inaction on the case, were decried by large parts of the Italian civil society and media as a cowardly and/or misguided move, but defended by the Executive as a decision meant to allow the Ambassador to work more effectively on the ground on the Regeni case. Unsurprisingly, at the time of writing no progress on the case has seemed to result from Cantini’s establishment in Cairo yet.

At the same time, the Italian government was apparently also working with Egypt on its main foreign policy concern in the Southern Mediterranean in 2017: migration (and therefore also the situation in Libya and its Southern neighbors). The signature of a joint training protocol between Italian and Egyptian Interior Ministries on “organized crime and illegal immigration” was announced in September. State-owned Al-Ahram Online reported: “360 policemen from 22 African countries will be trained on the latest methods to fight organised crime and illegal immigration under the supervision of Egyptian, Italian and European trainers. The protocol, which is funded by Italy and Europe, will also involve workshops to exchange expertise between both countries.”

Nonetheless, the Italian authorities did react in the autumn of 2017 to an urgent case in Egypt, ostensibly due to its connection to the Giulio Regeni file. On September 10, rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy was forcibly disappeared by the Egyptian authorities on his way to Geneva on the invitation of the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances; as an expert on enforced disappearances in Egypt, Mr Metwally had previously contributed legal advice to the Regeni legal team. His situation was energetically publicized in Italy and covered by all the mainstream media, undoubtedly helping to motivate the Chair of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee, MEP Pierantonio Panzeri to issue a public statement on the case. Intense advocacy in Brussels, Rome and elsewhere facilitated the reappearance of Mr Metwally in State Security Prosecution custody after 60 hours. After he was formally charged and sent into pretrial detention, in solitary confinement at Al-Aqrab maximum security prison, ongoing campaigning by NGOs, UN statements, parliamentary questions by parliamentarian Pia Locatelli (Human Rights Committee Chair at the Chamber of Deputies), and attention by European parliamentarians helped maintain pressure on the Italian Foreign Ministry and the EEAS. Following Egyptian Foreign Ministry refusal to receive a demarche on his case in Cairo, a joint statement was eventually published in November by five European States—including Italy—and Canada. Though unfortunately Mr Metwally remains in detention at the time of writing, his case demonstrates the Italian government in 2017 was still clearly susceptible to combined civil-society, media and parliamentary pressure in case of any connection to the Giulio Regeni case, to the extent of publishing an extremely rare public statement on an Egyptian human rights defender behind bars.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament’s positions on human rights in Egypt in 2017 have been interesting. The EP has no mandate to decide the EU’s policy toward specific MENA states, but only to monitor and discuss it, and to address the various parties involved. This role can still be impactful in particular circumstances, as it can help shed light on urgent cases and issues, and sometimes motivate other institutions to put this on their agenda, to take action or speak out. However, political positions of the EP’s biggest political groups (the EP name for parties) toward a specific country can either favor or block the institution’s decision to discuss an issue or the general human rights situation in a MENA country, either in plenary session or in a relevant committee or delegation. In 2017, the two biggest political groups of the center-right/right (EPP) and center-left (S&D) consistently refused to have a full plenary debate and resolution on Egypt (the last one was on January 15, 2015) or even an urgency resolution. From the EPP leadership side, this has apparently been motivated by many of the same factors noted above with regard to Greece and Hungary, as well as for the French, German and Italian governments; they are aware that Egypt’s political, security and socioeconomic situations are not good, that all of these aspects are negatively impacted by the very bad human rights situation, and that all of this would be voiced loudly by MEPs of the Left and Center in the event of a plenary resolution. The S&D is more divided; some of its members do understand Egypt cannot achieve stability without progress on human rights, the rule of law and accountability, and that repression, closure of public space and the political sphere are dangerous. But the majority of S&D leadership leans clearly toward the position just outlined for the EPP.

On the contrary, the Greens/EFA (left/environmentalists) and ALDE (Liberals) have been very concerned with Egypt’s human rights situation in 2017, consulting rights groups regularly and attempting repeatedly in 2016 and 2017—with support from GUE/NGL (far left) when they find it feasible—to convince the recalcitrant EPP and S&D to agree to a plenary debate and resolution on Egypt. ALDE Group leader, Guy Verhofstadt tried again, on March 15, 2017, for the group to play their role of monitoring EU policy by addressing to the HR/VP F. Mogherini once more, directly in a strongly-worded letter and press release. They called on her ahead of the EU-Egypt Association Council “to move the protection of the rule of law and human rights, including support for the civil society, to the core of the EU's partnership with Egypt” and urged her “to urgently address these concerns with Egyptian authorities.” In May, political groups agreed as a compromise for the EP’s Human Rights Subcommittee (DROI) to hold an Exchange of Views on the human rights situation in Egypt; DROI’s diligence and NGO advocacy facilitated the selection of independent Egyptian HRDs Bahey el Din Hassan of CIHRS and Moataz el Fegiery of Front Line Defenders, as sole speakers. Unfortunately, the Exchange had to be held in camera (confidentially) due to security concerns.

In the second half of 2017, the left and center groups worked on urgent human rights cases in Egypt, in particular that of HRD Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, with two strong statements from the DROI chair. The EPP and S&D did not agree to an urgency resolution on Mr Metwally, enforced disappearances and torture, as well as retaliation against HRDs. The compromise outcome was a plenary debate without resolution on the EU-Egypt Partnership Priorities on October 4, 2017—shortly after a public event held by Italian S&D MEPs on the Giulio Regeni case. The HR/VP F. Mogherini did not attend in person but the debate was quite positive, with almost all the MEPs who spoke criticizing Egypt’s human rights record. The DROI Chair Mr Panzeri and MEPs Marietje Schaake (ALDE) and Barbara Lochbihler (Greens) made very strong statements about a range of rights, as well as general trends in EU-Egypt relations. Several others mentioned urgent human rights cases and issues, as well as the Giulio Regeni case. At the same time, in the October plenary session, 68 MEPs signed a strongly-worded joint letter led by Swedish Left MEP Malin Björk (GUE/NGL) to HR/VP Mogherini and the EU Delegation in Cairo, urging them to take action in response to the crackdown on LGBTQI people in Egypt. Two press releases by MEPs M. Björk and Marina Albiol (Izquierda Unida) on this issue garnered significant coverage in the mainstream Swedish and Italian press. The next week, four MEPs joined an NGO-organized demonstration in solidarity with LGBTQI people in Egypt, in front of the European Parliament.

            Thus, there was in fact some response to human rights issues in Egypt throughout the year 2017 from the EP. In spite of the blocker role played by the EPP and often by the S&D, the political commitment and diligence demonstrated by MEPs, political groups and the Human Rights Subcommittee in 2017 ensured that the Parliament did not remain silent on the matter.


In 2017, civil society advocacy did succeed in ensuring that alarming conditions in Egypt did not escape the EU and key Member States’ attention, and helped keep the human rights situation on European agendas. Nevertheless, European human rights policies toward Egypt have been disappointing this year, on the whole. The EEAS and Commission have continued on their chosen track toward full normalization of formal bilateral relations and enhancing financial support for Egypt through different channels. At the time of writing, the normalization appears near complete, with the exception of direct budget support which has not been resumed since the summer 2013 freeze. It is no longer clear whether the latter element has anything to do with the human rights situation, or if it is ultimately much more a matter of doubting the Egyptian authorities’ capacity and willingness to use such funds for citizens’ direct benefit. The Egyptian government’s spending of roughly the same amount on large armaments purchases (not directly usable in counter-insurgency settings) in 2014-16 as its 2016 IMF loan does not bode well in terms of good governance and wise financial planning.

Ironically, in 2017 it was the USA under the Trump administration, not the EU (once described by international relations theorists as a “normative power”), who put the question of human rights conditionality on the table with Egypt. It remains extremely worrying—though not entirely a surprise—that European Member States and the EU ostensibly have not, so far, proved willing to search for similar channels. The reasoning that increased engagement and support for Egypt would earn the EU more leverage has been put forward constantly since 2015 at least, but does not seem to have yielded a significant result yet. The EEAS, the Commission and even the Counter-terrorism Coordination Director at the Council finally seem reasonably well aware of Egypt’s alarming situation. It remains to be seen whether they will decide in the future to use whatever leverage the EU has, including reputational support, to convince the Egyptian authorities to take some legislative and judicial steps toward reopening public space and the political sphere, or to make the expected 2018 presidential election more relevant and less of a foregone conclusion. At minimum, it is becoming urgent for the Union and its Member States to be stricter among themselves to cease aiding and abetting, or at least condoning, the commission of grave human rights violations in Egypt—some of which may constitute crimes against humanity, according to Human Rights Watch.

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The full report is available only in Arabic

Annual Report on Human Rights in the Arab Region 2017-2018

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