Mixed messages from the EU won’t help solve Egypt’s crisis

Happier times: Catherine Ashton meets Mohamed Morsi after his election as Egypt’s president. European External Action Service

The stand-off in Egypt continues. A sit in by supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi has been put on notice that they will be cleared out by force if necessary.

The protesters for their part have vowed they will remain until Morsi is reinstated. The government has dropped leaflets explaining that anyone who leaves the sit-in will be deemed not to have committed a crime.

And while the stalemate drags on, envoys have poured into Cairo from the US, the European Union and the Gulf States in an attempt to stave off a descent into large-scale bloodshed.

Meanwhile the whereabouts of Morsi himself remains a closely guarded secret. Not even the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who met with Morsi last week, was allowed to know where he is being kept - she was flown to the location after dark.

Baroness Ashton reported Morsi to be safe and well - and reported a “strong desire” on all sides to resolve the crisis that has paralysed Egypt since the end of June.

EU shaky on Egypt

But the EU’s track record on Egypt has up to now been fairly equivocal, to say the least. When Morsi was elected Ashton proclaimed his inauguration “a moment to celebrate the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history” and also committed the EU to “work with him and his future government as he leads the country into the next crucial stage of its transition”.

Despite this initial enthusiasm, the EU was quick to change its mind when protesters went en masse into Tahrir Square to challenge Morsi’s government and the headline in the EU Observer on July 4, the day after Mohamed Morsi was removed from office by an army coup ran thus: “EU sheds no tears over Morsi’s departure”.

The same day Ashton stated that the EU “remains unequivocally committed to supporting the Egyptian people in their aspirations to democracy and inclusive governance”.

We need reminding that Morsi was democratically elected and although his short-lived government was not as inclusive as many Egyptians wanted, and his ousting followed massive popular protests, this was not the way in which a serious international actor is expected to respond to such a grave situation in the most populous country in the Arab world.

Stability trumps democracy

The EU has always preferred stability over democracy in the Middle East, conscious that any political change towards democratic reforms in this region would produce instability in the short to medium term.

Thus, despite professing a commitment to democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) in its 2003 European Security Strategy and 2004 European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU continued to support autocratic regimes, such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, in the region.

This was mainly because the alternative – the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – was not expected to be as co-operative with the EU on various EU security interests including Egypt’s willingness (under Hosni Mubarak) to deal with Israel, to act as trading and economic partner of the EU, to “control” illegal migration and counter-“terrorism”.

Shades of Palestine 2006?

The EU’s reaction reminds us of how the EU isolated Hamas, Palestine’s Islamist party, following its democratic victory in Palestinian elections in 2006. The upheaval that followed in Palestine after the 2006 elections should have acted as an important lesson for the EU in its proclaimed role in the southern neighbourhood and more broadly in the world.

If the EU wanted to be taken seriously as a mediator in the deepening internal divisions in Egypt it had a golden opportunity to encourage political reconciliation between the two main rival camps before the coup actually took place.

The EU deems dialogue to be one of its core foreign policy tools. So it is even more surprising that it did not initiate or at least encourage the building of a free space for the contestation of ideas, a climate of open discussion and exchange of alternative view points between the two main rival parties in Egypt. Instead its reaction has only deepened the divisions in this crucial Arab state.

But just as it did not play a timely role in encouraging reconciliation between the two main rival groups in Palestine (Fatah and Hamas), the EU did not encourage reconciliation between the two rival camps in Egypt. The result has been escalating violence and bloodshed with no party showing any willingness to compromise for the best of the country as a whole.

For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood stipulate that their protests will continue until Morsi is reinstated in office. The army on the other hand is increasing its pressure on the MB by arresting key party figures and pursuing tough measures against its opponents including violence - thus further accentuating the divisions in Egypt by alienating all Morsi’s supporters.

Ashton says that relationships built up over a dozen or more visits have given her an advantage in her efforts to find a “middle ground and to identify confidence-building measures” between the two rival Egyptian camps. She could do well in making it clear to the Egyptian army that the use of force is no way forward towards a peaceful political solution to this crisis.

Her message to the MB should be that the reinstatement of an unpopular president may have to be shelved in favour of fresh elections. Her emphasis should be on a healthy, rational debate between all opposing views as the only possible way that Egypt could avoid descending into social and economic collapse with serious repercussions for the whole region as well as for Europe and the wider world.

There have been reports of possible concessions to the MB - talk of the offer of ministerial posts, unfreezing of assets and an amnesty for those members held in prison, but these have been denied today. This is the most serious aspect of the crisis - the marginalisation of non-violent Islam as a political force.

For many Muslims in Egypt, Morsi’s government had represented an opportunity for an Islamist group (the Muslim Brotherhood) to access political power through legitimate means. That it was cut off before it had a chance to prove itself may have catastrophic consequences.