One month after the Egyptian revolution succeeded and ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, I was in Cairo with a delegation of the European Parliament. From the reactions of many young revolutionaries we understood that they didn’t feel any support from the West in their struggle for freedom and democracy. They had done this themselves and they were proud of it. During a meeting with prime minister and later presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik, another message was given to us, surprised Europeans: “You supported Mubarak. We don’t need your help with our transition to democracy.”
The ten years that followed the revolution were marked by the same mutual misunderstanding. The West was frustrated about the disinterest of the Egyptian government in Western help, except for money. The Egyptian side was frustrated about Western paternalistic demands for change while not giving enough financial support. The best example of this frustration was perhaps the so-called EU-Egypt Taskforce in 2012. The EU agreed on a multi-year package of €5 billion for Egypt and what was presented as a kind of new deal. In reality, more than 80% of this package consisted of loans, to be made available only if Egypt complied with IMF conditions. From the €200 million budgeted a year only a part was actually paid to Egypt, as in the eyes of Europe the government fell short on the conditions set. In brief, in the eyes of the Egyptians, this package was an empty box. The reasoning of the Egyptian government, whatever its ideology, was always the question “what’s in it for us?” This is the reason why European leverage on Egypt was limited on issues like human rights. Europe’s carrot was too small, and the stick was non-existent.
The leverage of the United States has been somewhat greater in the past 10 years. Even though the annual US aid package was more or less the same amount as the European one, some €200 million, it was the military package that made the difference. Since the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978, the United States gives Egypt a yearly €1 billion ($1.3 billion) in military aid or equipment. One of the frustrations of the Egyptians is that this money not only needs to be used to buy American arms, but also that these arms often do not have the latest technology. Given the American pressure on human rights and other criticisms in the years of the Obama administration, many supporters of the current Sisi government strongly believe that the US is not the friendly nation it pretends to be and even that it was the US who trained and pushed the April 6 movement and other organisations who started the revolution of 2011, overthrew the president and the government and thus weakened the country.
If we compare the Western financial contributions to Egypt, they appear to be slim compared to the support of the Gulf. From 2011 until the beginning of 2019, the Gulf countries have given no less than €75 billion to Egypt, mostly in hard cash, but also loans to buy petroleum. Even if one counts the EU loans to Egypt, and the military aid of the US, the numbers are dwarfed by the Gulf’s. Equally important is the fact that the Gulf money comes without formal conditions. This doesn’t mean that there are no strings attached. For example, when the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia started a war in Yemen, they asked for Egyptian support. Reluctantly, Egypt had no other choice than joining in, even though its support was rather symbolic.
While the EU refused to endorse the new Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 February 2015 made an official visit to Egypt. Sisi was not only grateful for this recognition, but also signed a deal on Russian missiles and fighter jets. As a matter of fact, the missiles arrived just a few weeks later. This was not the only strain on Egypt’s relations with the West. EU policy was also undermined by bilateral deals between Egypt and European countries, the most important one being France. One week after Putin’s visit, France concluded a €5.2 billion deal with Egypt on Rafale fighter jets, which was just the first of many arms deals to follow. In August of the same year, 2015, Italy’s energy company ENI discovered a massive gas field in Egyptian water in the Mediterranean. This glued a new Egyptian-Italian partnership that could not be broken even by the killing of the Italian student Giulio Regeni after being tortured by Egyptian intelligence officers a few months later. During the same year, Germany for its part made an investment of €10 billion euro through its multinational Siemens.
However, the real new start of EU-Egypt relations was not related to arms or gas, but to the so-called migration crisis of 2015. In 2015 1.3 million refugees entered the EU looking for asylum, which triggered a major political crisis within the European Union. The German chancellor went against the current and said that Germany would be able to manage it (wir schaffen das). Nevertheless, there was pressure on Angela Merkel and the EU to stop this migration. That is why a deal was made with Turkey and Libya, the two main sources of migration to Europe. In 2017 the EU made a migration deal with Egypt in order to stop boats embarking from the Mediterranean coast of Egypt and to fight terrorism.
With this EU migration/terrorism deal, al-Sisi seems to have gotten what he was looking for: European recognition without changing his political crackdown on whoever utters a critical word. Former US president Donald Trump called him “my favourite dictator”, while French President Emmanuel Macron gave al-Sisi the highest French medal, the Légion d’honneur. As the Arab world remains unstable, Sisi’s Egypt seems to be again a beacon of stability. After the traumas of the terrorist attacks in Europe and the so-called migration crisis, Europe has chosen to return to the same position it had towards Hosni Mubarak, before the revolution of 2011: if Egypt pretends to fight terrorism and to stop migration, Europe will pretend that human rights and democracy are more or less ok in Egypt.