The EU has committed to outsourcing its dirty work to authoritarians in the Middle East and Africa—and to confusing dependence for maturity.
BY ADAM TOOZE
In Europe’s relations with its Arab neighbors and former colonial possessions, it is not just fraught history that is at stake. The unprecedented summit between the Arab League and the European Union in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Feb. 24 and 25 was a clash of political regimes. The EU prides itself on a values-based foreign policy that affirms democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Of the 30 Arab states it met in Egypt, only Tunisia comes close to meeting those criteria.
In the end, 20 European heads of government, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, attended, but only after two particular pariahs, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had agreed to stay away. That may have spared the Europeans’ blushes, but it only had the effect of highlighting the incongruity of the EU readily accepting the hospitality of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Sisi is a former general who overthrew the duly elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013, at the cost of many hundreds of lives. Since then, he has ruled with an iron fist, imprisoning dozens of journalists and jailing, according to Human Rights Watch, upward of 60,000 of his political opponents. Only last month, nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood were put to death. The overthrow of the democratically elected government put in place by the revolution of 2011 was initially justified as transitional. Sisi’s supporters are now pushing to entrench the general’s grip on power until 2034.
Sisi at least puts on the veneer of a modern international statesman. The Saudis do not even bother. King Salman stumbled embarrassingly through his summit speech before departing the scene. To show others the respect of listening to their opinion was beneath his royal dignity, or perhaps simply beyond the octogenarian’s strength.
Europe has become accustomed to portraying its sacrifices of human rights as the necessary wages of diplomacy in an anarchic world. That is self-flattering—but also self-deceiving. The real question is why Europe feels it is so essential to cultivate government-to-government relations with such authoritarian regimes.
The basic rationale for a meeting with the Arab League is that Europe must talk with its neighbors. That is hard to deny. Not much other than talk was achieved in Sharm el-Sheikh. But this is not without its effects. Sisi craves legitimacy. The EU confers it by accepting his invitation. It also provides Sisi with a platform for grandstanding. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, ended the meeting at an awkward press conference in which Sisi wrapped his authoritarian regime in the banner of cultural nationalism. “You are not going to teach us about humanity,” Sisi declared to rapturous applause from ranks of loyal Egyptian journalists. Europeans and Arabs, he insisted, had a different “sense of humanity, values, and ethics … Respect our values and ethics as we do yours.”
If it stands by its principles, the EU cannot in fact accept such a refusal of the universal value of human rights, certainly not from someone of Sisi’s dubious legitimacy. What independent polling we have suggests that a large part of Egyptian public opinion in fact objects to the violence of his regime.
The EU’s connivance was, one forthright former senior diplomat acknowledged, an exercise in a new “realism.” As usual, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was eager to grasp the nettle. It was time, he declared, for Europe to accept that “power” is not a dirty word. And as usual, he was ready with a folksy crack: “Sometimes you have to dance with whoever’s on the dance floor,” he said in a speech in Switzerland prior to the Egypt summit.
But does that in fact make sense? What kind of powers is it that the Europeans are dancing with? Why does Europe need to dance at all?
For sure, Sisi’s grip on power seems firm for now. It is certainly brutal. But does his regime offer Egyptians a positive long-run perspective? That is far less obvious, and as Egypt’s main trading partner, Europe actually has a say in the matter. Currently its trade share is 30 percent. It could be far larger. In courting Sisi, has the EU already forgotten the embarrassment of its dalliance with Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi or Egypt’s own Hosni Mubarak, who were dropped with alacrity when the Arab Spring began in 2011?