Koert Debeuf Column

EU-Egypt Taskforce: The Perfect Misunderstanding. (Column)

«I didn’t realize that you hate us», said European Commissioner Stefan Fühle after a two hour discussion with Egyptian NGO’s. It was the last meeting of the EU-Egypt Taskforce. This Taskforce assembled four hundred politicians and entrepreneurs for two days in Cairo in order to see how we could better cooperate. The meeting was very high level. From the Egyptian side the prime minister was there, the foreign minister and many other ministers and members of the Shura Council. From the European side Lady Ashton was there, as well as EU Commissioners Tajani and Fühle, many foreign ministers and members of European Parliament.

The most important news from the Taskforce was the announcement by the European Commission to support Egypt with no less than 5 billion euro. Not without conditions. Egypt should comply with the conditions of the IMF. A thing Egyptians don’t really like to hear. They have a collective historical aversion of foreign loans. It was King Mohamed Ali who took loans from Britain and France to build the newly independent Egypt into a European-style power in the first half of the 19th century. When he was unable to pay the loans back, Britain took half of the Egyptian ministries. It was only until the Suez crisis in 1956, more then a century later, that Egypt succeeded in kicking the foreign powers out and regained its independence. This historical fear, together with the feeling of humiliation – why can’t we govern our own business in a proper way – makes Egyptians happy and unhappy at the same time with foreign support and certainly if it is conditioned.

Conditions, that is what it is all about. When I visited with some liberal Members of European Parliament the Prime Minister just after the revolution (it was still Shafiq…), he told us that we supported Mubarak before and that we were not well placed to tell the Egyptians what to do. A few months later we met with PM Sharaf and he told us the same thing. Guess what, this week PM Qandil and president Morsi gave the Europeans exactly the same message. And the Europeans feeling guilty about the Mubarak era back off. At least publicly. Not realizing that by being silent they make the same mistake as they did with Mubarak. The most obvious example during this week was the incident with the civil society.

The Egyptian government invited the civil society (NGO’s, human rights and development organisations) to participate to the EU-Egypt Taskforce. A few days before the actual meeting the government withdrew the invitation. The European Commission was not pleased and thought about what they could do. Or they could blow up the whole thing, but in their eyes that seemed a bit exaggerated. Or they could insist on meeting the civil society separate from the official program. That’s what they did.

So this is the core of the perfect mutual misunderstanding. The EU honestly thinks that as long as they listen to the civil society and take their remarks serious, everything is fine. Even more, a high-level European representative asked the civil society to be grateful as the EU did organise a dinner with them. The Egyptian civil society was utterly shocked that they were erased from the official delegation and sidelined to a dinner. Why? This is not only about pride. This is about the revolution itself. Not the organisers of the Taskforce risked their life on Tahrir square. On the contrary, they are exactly the same people of twenty (some even forty) years ago. It were these guys who sidelined the civil society every single time under Mubarak and it were the same guys who repeated the same scenario. As if the revolution never happened.

When European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, Stefan Fühle comes to explain during a dinner for the sidelined civil society that there are also human rights and democratic conditions in the EU package, he should not be surprised that the attendees react sceptically and even angry. Because if he is serious about these conditions, why did he then allow the Egyptian government to screw the first moment where his words could be applied? And this in the very week, one year after the clashes in Mohamed Mahmud street, where more than forty youngsters had been killed by police snipers. Nevertheless, Mister Fühle, the Egyptians don’t hate the EU. But they are vey frustrated and disillusioned. They had hoped for more. Much more. And frankly, they are right.

by Koert Debeuf

FLI Koert Debeuf PortretKoert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.

For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.

You can follow @koertdebeuf on Twitter

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