The recent tragedy in which 224 passengers and crew died in the skies over Sinai points to the contradiction in so many Western governments’ policies towards the Middle East. Their rhetoric trumpeting democracy and human rights is at odds with their de facto support for dictatorships and economic policies that benefit the few, not the many. This contradiction is dangerous because – far from promoting democracy and peace – it facilitates economic inequality, political polarisation, even violence.
The official visit of Egyptian president and former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi should have provided a useful opportunity for the UK to put pressure on Cairo’s military-led government to deliver on democratic promises.
Instead, Sisi has felt so free from political pressure that, just before he left for London, his security forces arrested one of the main figures of pro-democracy activism, the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hossam Bahgat and held the journalist for four days. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be prosecuted for “deliberately broadcasting false information that disturbs public security, incites public panic and harms the public interest”.
Meanhwhile, the regime continues to imprison activist Alaa Abdel Fattah – a prominent figure in Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Sentenced under anti-terrorism legislation, Alaa Abdel Fattah’s crimes were to peacefully protest against the military’s power grab, to protest the increasing use of military tribunals to try civilians, and to disagree with a draconian protest law that requires police authorisation for even the smallest gatherings, effectively banning street protest.
Far from the run-up to the Egyptian president’s visit to London being politically sensitive, human rights were barely mentioned. Sisi’s greatest embarrassment was Cameron’s awkward failure to notify him of the UK’s decision to suspend flights to Egypt. Instead, talk mainly focused on trade relations and security issues.
The public justification for this choice is that trade and security are vital foundation stones for democracy. Although this may be true in principle, the policies pursued by successive US and European governments have, in fact, worsened economic conditions for most Egyptians. Nor have they achieved much in the way of supporting popular demands for democracy.
This was true before the “Arab Spring” and it has remained so since. Western governments’ insistence that they have recognised their mistakes ring hollow as ordinary people in the region see their aspirations for greater economic fairness and better political representation trampled at every turn.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings, Western governments were presented with an unprecedented opportunity: to respond to demands for democracy by supporting the freedom of individuals to take part in politics, and to act on a widespread desire for social justice with genuine commitment to economic reforms that favour more equitable distribution of wealth. Instead, there have been few significant changes in policy towards Egypt or the Middle East generally.
This is a dangerous path for Western governments to tread. Increasing poverty and political repression have rarely led to peaceful protest and smooth transitions towards democracy. On the contrary, they are much more likely to strain social cohesion, undermine a government’s legitimacy and create a context that makes radicalisation and extremism more likely, not less.
This is the backdrop against which we must approach the problem of political radicalisation and terrorism in Egypt. Given the increasingly bold activity of militant groups in and beyond northern Sinai, the British and Egyptian governments would do well not to ignore the structural causes of this radicalisation. The decade-long insurgency should not be mistaken simply for the increasing appeal of Daesh/Islamic State.
Both Europe and Egypt seem to have forgotten the lessons of their own history in this respect. In the 1970s, European governments learned to their cost that while, in the short term, groups prepared to use violence pose a risk requiring sensible security measures, those measures alone will not deal with the long-term problem. Both Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” and Italy’s experience with left and right-wing terrorism provide recent reminders.
In January 1977, the Egyptian government faced a massive, nationwide revolt – which became known as the “Bread Riots” – when it tried to cut subsidies to essential goods, hitting the poorest hardest. Egypt’s then-military strongman, Anwar Sadat, was forced to repeal the cuts. Europe’s governments realised that security measures worked best if political reforms also addressed the concerns, not of extremists, but of the disenfranchised masses. Governments on both shores of the Mediterranean would do well to remember those lessons now.
The case for supporting a genuine transition to democracy in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is not just altruistic, it is also in the UK’s national interest. Shoring up authoritarian regimes and economic policies which result in increasing inequalities not only frustrates any hope of democracy, it creates the very conditions for instability and insecurity that Western governments claim they are so keen to avoid.