EU Leaders Ignore Egyptian Executions, Align with Autocrat Al-Sisi

As the world harshly condemned the recent spike in Egypt’s executions of young Egyptians, EU leaders met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt to consolidate Euro-Arab cooperation.
Youssef Igrouane
Youssef Igrouane is a Moroccan journalist and researcher. He holds a master's degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe in Belgium. He focuses on the geopolitical and sociopolitical issues in the MENA region and Euro-Mediterranean relations.
EU Leaders Ignore Egyptian Executions, Align with Autocrat Al-Sisi

European Union (EU) and Arab League leaders held the first ever EU-Arab League summit on February 24 and 25 in Egypt.

European Union (EU) and Arab League leaders held the first ever EU-Arab League summit on February 24 and 25 in Egypt. The two-day summit, co-chaired by European Council President Donald Tusk and Egyptian President al-Sisi, aimed to find common ground between the EU and Arab League on security, migration, and stability in the Middle East.

While the summit served as an opportunity for Europe to secure its economic and security interests in the region, starkly absent was any reference to the human rights violations committed by the al-Sisi regime as part of its ongoing crackdown on dissenters and critics. In fact, the summit’s agenda omitted any discussion of the EU’s fundamental values of respect for human dignity or human rights, freedom, democracy, equality, or the rule of law.

Egyptian authorities executed 15 people in February. Among them were nine suspected Muslim Brotherhood members convicted of the murder of Egypt’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, in 2015.

Three other men were also executed for their alleged involvement in the murder of a police officer during the riots that followed the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in 2013.

Three other “political detainees” were also hanged last month after being convicted of killing the son of a judge in 2014. The Egyptian authorities had tortured the three into confessing, human rights advocates.

Yet while news of the executions has appalled human rights organizations the world over, and received international condemnation, EU member states have largely remained silent.

International Condemnation

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has called upon al-Sisi to halt the executions of the 15 people.

OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said that while the executions of the nine convicted of killing Hisham Barakat are permissible under international law, “our common position at the UN is to advocate the abolition of the death penalty.”

“During the trial, detailed accounts of the torture allegedly used to obtain confessions, were apparently ignored by the courts without due consideration.”

Colville went on to say, “During the trial, detailed accounts of the torture allegedly used to obtain confessions, were apparently ignored by the courts without due consideration.” This came after a UN Committee Against Torture probe found in June 2017 that torture is practiced “systematically” in Egypt.

Amnesty International had called for the Egyptian authorities to reverse the decision to execute the nine men, calling it a “monumental disgrace.”

“By carrying out the executions of these nine men, . . . [Egypt] has demonstrated an absolute disregard for the right to life,” stated Najia Nounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director. “The Egyptian authorities should take steps to abolish the death penalty once and for all.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose own human rights record is not pristine, has also strongly condemned the executions. He stated on national television that “This is not something we can accept.” Erdogan also called for the release of the Muslim Brotherhood prisoners.

Turkish-Egyptian relations have been strained since the rise of al-Sisi to power in 2014. Ankara calls al-Sisi an “illegitimate” president, given that the Egyptian military ousted Turkey’s close ally, Morsi.

Erdogan’s spokesman and special adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, excoriated European leaders in a tweet on February 24, accusing them of being “complicit” in the execution of the nine men. He then tweeted: “al-Sisi executes 9 young people (and others, all together 46) and you still attend the EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt? . . . Where are your values and principles? Shame on you all.”

The summit also occurred contemporaneously with the amendment of Egypt’s constitution under which al-Sisi could stay in power until 2034, reflecting a revival of the authoritarianism that the Egyptian people had rejected during the Arab Spring.

EU Turns a Blind Eye to Authoritarianism in Neighboring Countries

Following the Arab Spring, the European Commission had reviewed its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).

Yet Europe now seems strangely inured to these shortcomings. Following the Arab Spring, the European Commission had reviewed its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The EU had originally adopted the policy in 2004 to bring its neighboring countries closer and to support their political reforms. The EU later revised it in response to the Arab protests focusing on the promotion of “deep democracy” in the MENA region.

The Arab Spring had taken the EU by surprise, however, and compelled it to call upon Arab leaders, some of the EU’s “longstanding authoritarian partners” to consider their people’s democratic demands.

Yet since then, the EU has seemingly recalibrated its pursuit of democracy in its southern neighbors, focusing more on promoting stability than actual democracy, as stated in its 2015 ENP review.

It is not that  Europeans “don’t care” about human rights; it is that they “just care more about other things—in this case, stability on their doorstep,” according to Kristina Kausch, senior fellow at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, an American think tank.

Europe’s latest engagement with Sisi shows the EU skirting the promotion of democracy and instead promoting stable governments that prohibit Arab citizens from leaving their countries, Kausch added.  

The refugee crisis has caused significant tensions between EU member states and is regarded as a key factor driving the EU to boost its cooperation with the Arab world, and discreetly deal with authoritarian rulers.

However, in the lead up to the summit, the EU implored the Arab League not to invite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). His father, King Salman attended instead. Several EU states have distanced themselves from MbS since the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir also did not attend the summit.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir also did not attend the summit. He had just been indicted for war crimes committed in 2008 by the International Criminal Court.

Likewise, Syria, which is expected to return to the Arab League in March, did not participate, having been suspended after President Bashar al-Assad’s violent repression of anti-regime protesters in 2011. Syria’s civil war and the associated instability in the region have resulted in an unprecedented refugee crisis with a significant impact on Europe.

While stability is, of course, important, it cannot come at the expense of the principles of democracy. If the EU is to promote “fundamental” democratic values in the MENA region, it cannot turn a blind eye to the human rights violations of the region’s authoritarian leaders.