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Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers
Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers

Egypt’s Sinai Question

Terrorism returned to Egypt in 2004 after an absence of seven years with successive attacks and the emergence of a heretofore unknown movement in Sinai. The government’s reaction essentially has been confined to the security sphere: tracking down and eliminating the terrorists.

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Executive Summary

Terrorism returned to Egypt in 2004 after an absence of seven years with successive attacks and the emergence of a heretofore unknown movement in Sinai. The government’s reaction essentially has been confined to the security sphere: tracking down and eliminating the terrorists. Egyptian and international NGOs have focused on the human rights violations which have been prominent in police procedures. The media have been preoccupied with whether al-Qaeda was responsible. Both the state’s response and wider public discussion have been confined to the surface of events and have ignored the socio-economic, cultural and political problems which are at the heart of Sinai’s disquiet. The emergence of a terrorist movement where none previously existed is symptomatic of major tensions and conflicts in Sinai and, above all, of its problematic relationship to the Egyptian nation-state. Unless these factors are addressed effectively, there is no reason to assume the terrorist movement can be eliminated.

Sinai has long been, at best, a semi-detached region, its Egyptian identity far from wholly assured. Under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982, it has remained under a special security regime mandated by the 1979 peace treaty, which significantly qualifies Egypt’s freedom of military action. Its geo-political situation – it comprises the whole of Egypt’s frontier with Israel and with the Palestinian enclave of Gaza – makes it of enormous strategic significance to both Egypt and Israel and sensitive to developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The population of approximately 360,000 – some 300,000 in the north, 60,000 in the south – is different from the rest of the country. A substantial minority is of Palestinian extraction, even if often Egyptian-born; the rest, labelled “Bedouin”, are longstanding natives of the peninsula. The Palestinian element is extremely conscious of its identity and ties to the populations of Gaza and the West Bank. The Bedouin (only a small minority are still tent-dwelling nomads) also possess a distinct identity. Very aware of their historic origins in Arabia and belonging to tribes which often have extensive branches in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, they, like the Palestinians, are naturally oriented eastward rather than toward the rest of Egypt. Neither Palestinians nor Bedouins have any share or interest in the Pharaonic heritage common to the populations (Muslim and Christian) of the Nile Valley.

These identity differences have been aggravated by socio-economic development promoted by the authorities since 1982. The government has not sought to integrate Sinai’s populations into the nation through a far-sighted program responding to their needs and mobilising their active involvement. Instead, it has promoted the settlement of Nile Valley migrants, whom it has systematically favoured, while discriminating against the local populations in jobs and housing in the north and in the rapid development of tourist enclaves (for Egyptians as well as internationals) in the south. These developments have offered scant opportunities to locals and often have been at their expense (notably with regard to land rights), provoking deep resentment. The government has done little or nothing to encourage participation of Sinai residents in national political life, used divide and rule tactics in orchestrating the meagre local representation allowed, and promoted the Pharaonic heritage at the expense of Sinai’s Bedouin traditions.

Thus, beneath the terrorism problem is a more serious and enduring “Sinai question” which the political class has yet to address. Doing so will not be easy. Since this question is partly rooted in wider Middle East crises, above all the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a definitive solution depends on their resolution. But the solution also requires the full integration and participation of Sinai’s populations in national political life, which means it is also dependent on significant political reforms in the country as a whole, which are not at present on the horizon.

While a comprehensive solution of the Sinai question cannot be expected soon, the government can and should alter a development strategy that is deeply discriminatory and largely ineffective at meeting local needs. A new, properly funded plan, produced in consultation with credible local representatives and involving all elements of the population in implementation, could transform attitudes to the state by addressing Sinai’s grievances.

Cairo/Brussels, 30 January 2007

Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers

To European leaders and policymakers:

We believe it is time for the EU to adopt a position on current developments in Egypt that is more clearly defined and better serves the interests of both Europe and the Egyptian people. For some time, the European Union (EU) has remained largely silent on political, judicial and human rights issues in Egypt, while several member states have acted to normalise relations with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his government. Yet the Egyptian government’s crackdown has reached a point where the existence of an independent human rights community is in question, and there is no accountability for torture, death in custody and enforced disappearances despite overwhelming evidence of the direct involvement of Egyptian security officials and institutions in these practices. The death of Giulio Regeni and the unresolved questions surrounding it, which are naturally a major focus of Italian and EU attention, are also emblematic of a much wider problem affecting large numbers of Egyptian citizens.

The recent reopening of the “foreign funding” case to target the country’s leading human rights organisations threatens to close the principal groups attempting to document rights abuses, and could lead to life prison sentences for human rights workers. Instead of pursuing these groups, the government itself should be taking steps to tackle the problem of abuses committed by the security services, which are provoking increasing discontent within Egypt and widespread concern among the European public. It should also abandon the practice of imprisoning people for their political views or for peaceful protest. The current crackdown has shown itself to be counterproductive even in the narrow terms of Egypt’s stability and has now become an undeniable stumbling block for the EU’s ability to cooperate fully with the country. More generally, the Egyptian regime’s excessive focus on security, defined through repression, and failure to develop an inclusive approach has prevented it from making progress on Egypt’s economic and social challenges.

We therefore suggest that European leaders, starting with President François Hollande of France who visits Egypt next week, should send the following messages to Egyptian authorities:

  • The EU and its member states remain convinced of the importance of the EU’s relationship with Egypt and committed to support the inclusive political, economic and social development of the country. Egypt and the EU are bound together in numerous ways, including significant shared interests in security, regional stability and commercial ties.
  • However the future relationship between the EU and Egypt will necessarily be held back while Egyptian authorities persist with policies that the EU regards as violating fundamental principles, including persecution of human rights groups, impunity for violations by the security services, and imprisonment of political opponents. These policies will not bring the stability that both Egypt and the EU want to achieve.
  • The EU believes that Egypt should therefore: 1) Undertake a reform of the security sector that would in particular get rid of the use of torture and enforced disappearances by state agents, in line with recognised international standards; 2) Repeal laws that allow for the harassment and prosecution of civil society organisations, as well as laws that penalise peaceful protest, and drop the current prosecutions under these laws; and 3) Release those imprisoned for non-violent protest or political expression, ideally through a large-scale amnesty.
  • The EU stands ready to offer any assistance with these reforms that would be helpful, and hopes to be able to deepen its relations with Egypt as they move forward. In their absence, however, the EU’s relations with Egypt cannot help but be affected, and the EU will continue to pay attention to these issues and raise them publicly where appropriate.
  • The EU will extend its solidarity and support to Italy as it seeks to find out the truth about and obtain justice for the torture and killing of Giulio Regeni.


The European Working Group on Egypt* (EWGE)

Anthony Dworkin, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) co-chair

Issandr El Amrani, International Crisis Group (ICG) co-chair

Rasmus Alenius Boserup, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS);

Haizam Amirah Fernández, Real Instituto Elcano (RIE);

Koert Debeuf, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA);

Dina Fakoussa, German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP);

Stéphane Lacroix, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Sciences Po (CERI);

Daniel Levy, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR);

Arnold Luethold, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF);

Charles Powell, Real Instituto Elcano (RIE);

Stephan Roll, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP);

Patrycja Sasnal, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM);

Nathalie Tocci, Italian Institute for International Affairs (IAI);

Richard Youngs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

The EWGE has been endorsed by the following prominent Europeans

Emma Bonino, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Italy

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO, International Crisis Group; former Under Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations

Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament

*This letter reflects the views of the individual signatories; institutional affiliations are listed for the purpose of identification only.