EU-Egypt Relationships in the Wake of the Zaki Case

The Patrick Zaki Affair (3)

, by Ignazio Pardo, translated by Rebeka Angstmann, Virginia Sarotto

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

EU-Egypt Relationships in the Wake of the Zaki Case
Egyptian President Fattah Al-Sisi. Source: Kremlin. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

This is the final article in our series on the Patrick Zaki Affair (see Part 1 and Part 2. In this final piece, we turn to Europe’s position regarding Patrick’s arbitrary detention. The article begins by outlining EU-Egypt relations, in order to explain their dynamics and foundations. It Subsequently examines the reactions of the EU’s three main institutions, which we were able to explore thanks to our correspondence with MEPs including Brando Benifei. Finally, alongside the spokesperson of Amnesty International Italy, Riccardo Noury, we lay out our view of the major strategies and political responses put forward by the main civil society organisations which are dealing with the case. We will also consider the results obtained by these professionals in light of the current situation.

EU-Egypt Relations

The relationship between the European Union and Egypt has tended to be categorised by a pragmatic approach, dictated by the need to mediate between economic, strategic and social aspects. It is necessary, as is often the case in the region under consideration, to differentiate the European approach between the periods before and after the 2011 regime change. Mubarak’s Egypt entered the European diplomatic projects, characterised by the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Barcelona Process of 1995, without any particular complications. This important step made way for the progressive integration of Cairo and Brussels and their first goal had an economic focus. The progressive dismantling of trade barriers has allowed the flow of direct foreign investments from the EU to Egypt, as well as access to the common market for many Egyptian products. It was perhaps the first time in which the historic dependence Cairo had on the American economy found a possible exit route. As foreseen by the strategies and dynamics of European economic integration, Brussels demanded numerous reforms from Egypt, aimed at liberalising the market, both within the country and in foreign trade. This was the backdrop for the signing of the Association Agreement between the EU and Egypt, which came into force in 2004. In the case of the Egyptians, however, the elites close to the regime combined a façade of economic freedom with the maintenance of privileges acquired over time. An example of this trend can be found in the obligation imposed on European companies, who wanted to invest in Egypt, to join Egyptian partners, often chosen among personalities and companies belonging to the regime’s circle. There is also a cultural factor to take into account: the elites close to the Mubarak regime were often made up of “Europeanised” families, who attended European schools and were in favour of the growth of European influence in the country. In fact, this also gave false hope to those sections of Egyptian society that hoped for a plural and democratic Egypt. This idea, albeit remaining nominally present, was immediately overshadowed by the European strategy.

Following the 2011 protests and the change in the Egyptian regime, the traditional pragmatism that had dominated the European-Egyptian relationships was put to the test. The internal divisions of the Union caused a very late response to the events of 2011, which saw Brussels support the new democratic order only after its official ascent to power. The Morsi administration, elected by the most free and pluralist votes ever registered in the history of the country, searched for and found a legitimizing tool within its relationship with the EU. This factor caused deep embarrassment and immobilism among the EU institutions when President Morsi was eventually removed by General Al-Sisi.

Consequently, when Al-Sisi became president, he was not in favour of European policies aimed at financing Egyptian Civil Society organisations which had democratic and pluralistic objectives. The laws governing the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were emblematic, by which Al-Sisi prohibited foreign financing to Egyptian NGOs, a measure clearly aimed at weakening European influence in the country. With the stability of this new regime in Cairo, the European diplomacy tried to adapt with its newly established and characteristic pragmatism. Brussels tried to strengthen its already strong relations with Egypt by virtue of the most strategic objectives for the Union: fighting terrorism, controlling illegal immigration, and economic issues. Aside from this, the European Union saw an essential partner in Egypt as they could act in Libya and maintain a voice in the Palestine issue.

In the 2017 Association Conference, the European Union and Egypt decided on the priorities of their partnership for the period 2017-2020, based on three main aspects: economic modernisation and energy sustainability, development and social protection, strengthening stability and democratic state. As a consequence of these policies, the EU is currently one of Egypt’s most important commercial partners. In 2019, the European market accounted for 30% of Egyptian exports (the USA was second with 9%) and 22% of Egyptian imports (in second place was China with 9%).

The funds that the EU estimated it would grant to Egypt in the 2017-2020 period ranged from €432 million to €528 million and would derive mainly from the new Neighbourhood Policy Instrument.

Despite these economic figures, the EU has had to deal with numerous diplomatic crisis in the last few years; first and foremost, the aforementioned climate of suspicion and distrust towards the Union that President Al-Sisi has always nurtured. This mistrust is made even more serious by the widespread attitude of control that President Al-Sisi exerts towards any kind of foreign relations, leaving no room for private companies or organisations. Secondly, and as a consequence of the first issue, Egypt’s rapprochement with other international partners has been observed; rapprochements which are probably due to Al-Sisi’s need to diversify its diplomatic strategy. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have similar ideologies to the President, have been transformed into the main economic sponsors of the Egyptian regime in a short space of time (one need only think of the story of the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea, ceded by Egypt to Saudi Arabia in exchange for economic aid). As well as the Gulf monarchies, President Al-Sisi has tried, with apparent good results, a historical rapprochement with Russia, signing a Comprehensive Cooperation and Strategic Partnership Agreement with President Putin in October 2018. Finally, to date, China is also quickly and significantly forming agreements with Egypt. In fact, despite being a fundamental point of the New Silk Road, Egypt is the destination of numerous Chinese investments, which grew by 60% in 2019. The third critical point of the European-Egyptian relationship comprises the topic of human rights that, however frighteningly marginal, is often a cause of tension between Brussels and Cairo.

In light of cases like that of Giulio Regeni, Italian researcher killed in Egypt in circumstances which remain unclear, in numerous diplomatic visits, government representatives from the European Union and Member States have not forgotten to draw attention to the worrying situation of fundamental rights in Egypt.

This is best demonstrated by the French President Emmanuel Macron’s last visit to Cairo in November 2019, in particular when he stressed during the concluding press conference that “la stabilité et la paix durables en égypte vont de pair avec le respect des droits et des libertés de chacun" (the stability and lasting peace in Egypt goes hand in hand with respect for the rights and freedom of every individual). In spite of the official complaints by Member States, their strong economic interests in Egypt should not be forgotten. In fact, they are considered to be the main cause for the little importance given to demands for rights. France, for example, is Egypt’s largest commercial weapons partner, with a turnover of more than 4 billion euros. As well as French businesses, large groups of shipowners are among the suppliers of war material to Egypt, for example the German company, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, and the Italian company Fincantieri. In fact, Italy too would have a lot to lose from a possible decrease in economic exchanges with Cairo. For example, the Italian multinational oil and gas company ENI has recently discovered and obtained concessions for new oil fields in Egyptian waters, confirming its position as one of the country’s main energy partners.

To confirm this, the spokesperson of Amnesty International Italy, Riccardo Noury, reminded us that the European governments have not hesitated to reiterate the strong understanding between their own member states and the Egyptian one. In fact, different heads of state have signed agreements in the field of military supply, as well as completed and publicised cordial state visits to the Al-Sisi palaces, as in the case of the French president Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, all of this taking place just a few months after the disappearance of the aforementioned researcher Giulio Regeni. As well as revealing a strong lack of solidarity among the governments of the member states, it is also worthy of commenting on the lack of interest of the Italian Government itself, which, in parallel to the appeals and declarations, has not hesitated to put economic reasoning before demands for truth in the Regeni case.

It is clear that there are many obstacles to a coherent European human rights policy, especially when it lies in the hands of Member State executives, who are primarily concerned with economic returns. However, it is important to give a voice to both the governmental and non-governmental positions and initiatives, that are being organised in relation to the Zaki case, to put pressure on the Egyptian authorities. The major economic interests described may be, in fact, an obstacle or a means of demanding answers from Cairo. In the following section, we will therefore analyse the reactions of the European institutions with regards to the Patrik Zaki case, and the main complaints that have been brought to our attention from a non-governmental perspective, in particular from Amnesty International.

Parliament, Commission and European Council: the institutional reactions to the Zaki case

How have the European institutions reacted to the Zaki case? Firstly, there is a dividing line between the Parliament’s approach on the one hand, and the Commission and Council’s on the other. The spokesperson for Amnesty International Italy, Riccardo Noury, has commented on the matter, “according to my experience and to past events, Parliament is the place for important and noble human rights initiatives, not the Commission." Confirming this, the only real and immediate reactions came from the President of the European Parliament, Mr Sassoli, and a number of MEPs, while the European Commission and the European Council have not yet put forward any precise position on the matter. Before reviewing these actions, it is important to note that the theories on the effectiveness of the international community’s pressure on the Egyptian regime are not unequivocal. While there is a common tendency among analysts to judge Europe’s ability to influence Egypt on human rights issues to be poor, other scholars, like Kelly Petillo, argue the contrary. In fact, in an analysis of the European Council of Foreign Relations, the researcher argues that the power that the European Union has on Egypt in cases such as the Zaki case should not be underestimated. The outer layer of Al-Sisi’s regime is not impermeable to criticism, and in past cases of this kind, the Egyptian authorities have proved vulnerable to international public scrutiny of human rights violations.

Despite this, there has been no united and robust European effort that would have the potential to put real pressure on Al-Sisi and create a space to prevent widespread abuse and repression of civil society. Sustained pressure has proved effective in the past several times in helping to free activists, and Petillo puts forward the idea that Egypt could give in to unanimous European action for the liberation of Patrick. As highlighted at the beginning of this article, the member states of the EU perceive Cairo as an independent ally and the Egyptian government is aware of it. However, Petillo points out that Egypt also needs its European partners and cares about its reputation and is therefore sensitive to criticism. This is precisely the reason why the European Union has genuine leeway in asking for Patrick’s release, and should take advantage of such.

It is, therefore, important to note how the Egyptian regime is sensitive to the international criticism of the lack of respect of human rights. Its awareness is demonstrated by the reaction of the Egyptian authorities to the first European stance on the Zaki case. The immediate reaction of the European Parliament to the news of Patrick’s arrest was made by President David Sassoli and requested Zaki’s immediate release, combined with a call for a response from the High Representative, Josep Borrell. The strong position expressed by Sassoli, which is summarised in the passage of the appeal made in Strasbourg, in which he reminded the Egyptian authorities that the EU’s relations with third world countries is contingent upon respect for human and civil rights, aroused irritation within Egyptian authorities. Responding to Sassoli, in fact, the President of the Egyptian Chamber of Deputies, Ali Abdel Aal, categorically rejected the accusations and classified those of the European Parliament as unacceptable interference in internal affairs and an attack on Egyptian judiciary powers.

Under the direction of President Sassoli, two parliamentary inquiries regarding the arrest of Patrick Zaki were tabled in Strasbourg by some members of the European Parliament. The first, dated 10 February 2020, called for a response from the High Representative on the Zaki case and requested that he urgently raise the issue with his Egyptian counterpart. The second inquiry, presented two days later, reiterated the requests of the first, but also added the suggestion that the High Representative should thoroughly review the relationships with Egypt and envisage the suspension of the free trade agreement until Patrick and all the activists unjustly detained were released. We have spoken to the team of Brando Benifei’s, one of the MEPs (PD, S&D Group) who signed the first inquiry, about the action he has taken to get Patrick out of prison.

In addition to the initiative in the chambers, together with various associations such as FIDH, EIDHR and Amnesty International, Benifei organised a flashmob in Strasbourg a few days after the arrest, which was attended by Italian MPs from various groups. Furthermore, together with several colleagues, Benifei took part in a sit-in at the Egyptian Consulate in Milan and wrote a letter to the Egyptian Ambassador in Brussels on behalf of the Italian delegation S&D Group to request Patrick’s release. In any case, at a general level, there is a lack of an official and unanimous solution from the European Parliament, which has given way to numerous initiatives that are unrelated to each other and based on the activism of individual MEPs. This is demonstrated by the news we have learned from the dialogue with the Benifei team, but also by the exchange of emails with the staff of Raphaël Glucksmann (S&D), who told us about his intention to write a letter to the Egyptian President and the Ambassador to the EU. However, the project was interrupted following the communication of a parallel initiative launched by Hannah Neumann (member of Alliance 90/The Greens) to the High Representative. It is, therefore, clear that there is a lack of coordination which we consider necessary for the effectiveness of action carried out by such a complex institution.

Interview with Riccardo Noury (Amnesty Italy): reactions and ideas from civil society

As we know well, the institutions are not the only ones being mobilised by this matter. There are, in fact, many representatives of civil society – both European and Egyptian - who are working tirelessly to follow the case and obtain guarantees with a view to releasing Patrick. The great resonance that the imprisonment and detention of the student has had on European societies is largely due to the organisations and bodies of human rights professionals who have been working for years following and denouncing the violations taking place in Egypt. In fact, they have not backed down in this case either, bringing international attention to the matter from the outset. We discussed this in a long chat with the spokesman of Amnesty International Italy, whose strategy, as well as that of most of the civil subjects working in this field, is to remain vigilant and to share information, constantly expanding the network working to get Patrick released. Especially at this time, collaboration between everyone involved - institutional or civil - and immediacy are two essential criteria. This is due to the fact that, since the Covid-19 outbreak, the health of the young Egyptian boy and all the prisoners is further at risk and we must hurry to grant him the necessary care and health protection. Additionally, Patrick suffers from asthma and is therefore decidedly at risk of contracting the virus and could suffer more severe consequences from the disease than normal. In fact, there is no more time to stall, says Noury. We can no longer be confident that the hearings will conclude in the best possible way, because the virus has unfortunately favoured the Egyptian authorities in delaying the verdict and excluding European diplomatic representatives from trials. However, at this point in time, it is necessary to push hard for the principle that pre-trial detentions awaiting verdicts should be well-regulated and justified exceptions, applicable only in specific cases. Patrick’s case is not one of these. This principle is in fact universally valid and, now that the decongestion of prisons is necessary for health security reasons, it must be given even greater importance.

However, Amnesty’s main interlocutor is still the Egyptian State, to which the organisation works both through the diplomatic representation from Cairo to Rome, and through the central institutions in Egypt. Despite this, Noury adds that, in order to resolve this dialogue in the best way possible, Amnesty requires institutional and diplomatic support from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Member States and the EU institutions. In fact until now, several European diplomatic representatives have devoted themselves to the case following the hearings, but the fear, which is well-motivated by the spokesman’s past experience, is that this situation may continue for years, and in this unfortunate case the risk is that the European authorities will divert attention. Noury does not shy away from explaining the arbitrary decision-making procedures of the judicial system and the unsatisfactory and worrying conditions in the country’s detention centres.

Therefore, we must act prioritising the need to get Patrick out of jail as soon as possible, and the best way to do this seems be, according to Noury, through bilateral dialogue. Despite the aforementioned appreciation of the support of several officials and representatives of Community institutions - in particular that of the President of the European Parliament and the Member States - Noury has expressed many doubts about future political moves that will come from Europe. The Amnesty spokesperson explains that he actually has very little hope in a more solid and unanimous diplomatic pressure from the EU. This is because of many previous negative experiences, above all the kidnapping and killing of Giulio Regeni four years ago, a case still unresolved today.

As previously mentioned, the big obstacle is that, beyond the interventions and positions taken, most European countries, including Italy, have unfortunately always had very good reasons to maintain good relations with Egypt, generating a huge problem in terms of coherence within the EU. With this in mind, in fact, Noury provides the example of the March 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey. He states that his impression is that there is strong unity in Europe when it comes to promoting economic agreements - even if they are detrimental to the fundamental rights of individuals - while this attitude seems to be lacking when it comes to intervening in specific cases in the defence of human rights. He concludes, therefore, by saying that, evidently, this is due to the fact that the fate of a citizen is of less interest than economic returns.

Despite these previsions and the comprehensive, complete vision, Noury is extremely confident in the capacities of civil societies, which have repeatedly demonstrated that they can play a fundamental role in cases such as this. Additionally, he hopes that the very high negotiating potential of the European Union will emerge as a result of the major initiatives and incentives that come from European and Egyptian citizens and organisations every day. We must mention the consistent and incessant work of Egyptian civil society, defined by Noury as formidable and full of citizens who, like Patrick, do not allow themselves to be intimidated by threats and retaliation by continuing to claim their rights and those of their fellow countrymen.

Furthermore, one cannot leave out the consistent and incessant measures and requests made by other non-institutional subjects such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Federation For Human Rights, EuroMed Rights and Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights - the association with which Patrick collaborated - which from the very beginning “captured public attention, most likely saving Patrick from a much worse fate”. They are all working to raise awareness about Patrick’s knowledge, competence and skill as a student and activist, and about the beauty of his story and ideas. This is indeed, according to the Amnesty spokesman, the best way to give him back the dignity that is being taken away from him. Concluding this in-depth examination of the case, which we have tried to conduct on several levels, we join the position of Amnesty. We support the idea that there is a need to maintain a high level of public attention on the case, without backing down until Patrick can once again enjoy the full extent of his rights. We also feel obliged to reiterate the considerable ethical and political responsibilities that fall onto the European Union. It is duty-bound to act in the defence of an individual who lives, studies and is an integral part of the student body of seven universities in as many as six Member States of the Union, whose civil societies – as well as others –demand his return. In this case, it would be crucial for community intervention to go beyond the economic interests of nation states which, although logistically more difficult to plan, we consider to be further justified and potentially very effective. It would be time, for Patrick’s sake, for the sake of thousands of individuals and for the very future of European institutions, for the Union to begin to show that it is consistent with the image it wants to project.

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