Koert Debeuf Column

What Should The EU Decide On Egypt ? (Column)

FLI Cairo 8 August 2013

Cairo 8 August 2013, Eid celebrations at al-Nahda Square where supporters of the deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi have camped for weeks demanding his reinstatement

I arrived back in Cairo late in the evening, during curfew. The streets were as good as empty and the soldiers at the checkpoints were fairly friendly. However, at a distant I could hear gunshots. Apparently, at some checkpoints soldiers fire in the air in order to warn people that a checkpoint is on their way. Another sign of the very tense situation. My taxi driver told me that his pro-Morsi friends will not stop fighting, a fact he deplores. In his opinion it is up to the Muslim Brotherhood to refrain from violence first.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular/military side are very much convinced of the truth of their story. Moreover, for many Egyptians the current battle is one of life and death. It is a struggle for the identity of their country and what they believe in. No wonder that the emotions run very, very deep. In the last two months it has wrecked many friendship and even families. Whoever makes a remark that goes against one of the two stories is rubberstamped as a traitor and an apologist of the rival camp. This state of mind – on top of the historical allergy towards any foreign interference – makes most Egyptians today oversensitive towards whatever remarks from the international community.

The result of this ‘you are either with us or against us’ mindset is that every country has been put in one of the camps. So far Turkey, Tunisia, Qatar, Malaysia and Germany have been put in the pro-Morsi camp. Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, the UAE and Russia are part of the anti-Morsi camp. The United States is a kind of special case as both camps are convinced the US is supporting the other side. One can of course discuss if all this is fair or not, but what I am trying to do is explaining the current Egyptian state of mind.

An important question is who in the international community is left to mediate between the two camps? I only see the European Union as a possible candidate. EU High Representative surprised everyone with the access she received at both sides. It was General Sissi who granted her permission to meet with Morsi. It was through the EU that since April 2013 Egypt came close to a negotiated way out of the crisis. If Morsi would have accepted the first deal, he would still be president, be it of a united government. If the Army would have accepted the second deal (in August) the bloody dispersal of Rabaa on August 14 most probably would not have taken place.

Although I understand that for the voters back home it is good for the European governments to take some measures against Egypt, I think it is important for the EU to think about two questions: What is the impact of our decision and what are the consequences?

What is the impact? The European Union can take several measures. It can cut the budget lines of the EU Neighbourhood Policy. It can combine this with cutting the aid of the EU member-states. And it can cut or freeze the economic boost promised in November 2012. About how much money are we talking? The budget of the EU Neighbourhood Policy is less than 200 million euro a year. Combined with the national budgets for Egypt we are talking about more or less 600 million euro.

These are fairly small budgets. Moreover, seen the situation most of that money is currently not being spent. The economic boost budget would be 5 billion euro. This is of course a lot more, but we have to take into account that this amount is merely made by loans that have to be paid back. If we compare these amount with the 12 billion dollar promised by Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, we must admit that the impact of cutting these budgets is fairly limited. On top of that, Saudi-Arabia already promised they would step in and pay for every aid being cut by the West.

Other possible measures could be an arms embargo or a travel ban for certain personalities. Although the EU itself has of course no arm deals with Egypt, the national states do have. All arm contracts together are worth a few hundred million euro. The problem with an embargo, as well as with travel bans, is that it smells too much as what the EU did in Syria. The fact that Russia would be happy to take over these contracts sounds even more like Syria.

But even more important than the numbers is the fact that it is very unlikely that one of both camps will change its position or the way it works by any of these measures. No country likes to be punished, but if punishments do not change anything then why would we take these measures? Some say that remaining silent would even be worse. I agree, but I think we should first look at the possible consequences.

What are the consequences? The main consequence of taking tough measures against Egypt today could be that the EU will be put in the basket of the pro-Morsi camp. The EU can of course say that it remains neutral and just wants stop giving aid to a country that uses violence against its citizens. But that will not work for the anti-Morsi side. The most problematic consequence of this would be that the European Union would lose its neutrality and thus its ability to mediate. And as the EU is left as the only possible mediator, that could be problematic in the near future. Because there is no scenario for Egypt to stabilize and go forward without a solution between both camps.

To conclude, of course the EU can and should condemn the violence committed by both sides. The police reaction to the sit-in in Rabaa was disproportionate and thus unacceptable. But arming protesters and burning churches is not less unacceptable. The EU can add new conditions on its aid and economic boost package. It is necessary to get proof from the Egyptian government that it proceeds towards elections which are open for all and that human rights are respected. But if the EU wants to keep its important role as future mediator it should resist the calls from the public back home to go and take severe measures against Egypt right now.

by Koert Debeuf, 20/8/2013

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’.

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For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.

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