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Open Letter to Chancellor Merkel
Open Letter to Chancellor Merkel
Egypt After the Election
Egypt After the Election

Open Letter to Chancellor Merkel

Uncritical engagement with Egypt will not promote European interests, says European Working Group on Egypt ahead of Chancellor Merkel's visit to Cairo.

Dear Chancellor Merkel,

When you meet President al-Sisi in Cairo this week, it is natural that you should seek Egypt’s cooperation on issues of direct importance to Germany, including migration, security, economic ties and regional issues. At the same time, it would not serve German or European interests to neglect the serious concerns raised by Egypt’s current direction and the potential dangers that it involves.

Under President al-Sisi, Egypt currently offers few prospects for successful cooperation and large risks of future instability. Despite a limited number of economic reforms, there are few signs that the leadership has the vision to pull Egypt out of a slow-motion economic crisis that combines high unemployment, crippling debt, a rising cost of living and grossly inadequate public services. Policymaking is concentrated in a narrow circle of military advisors and civilian experts are largely disempowered.

Business, civil society and political parties are systematically marginalised, and the most vocal among them are often silenced. Only a few days before your visit, authorities shut down a leading anti-torture NGO, the Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, while a rare opposition voice, Anwar al-Sadat, has been disbarred as a member of parliament.

President al-Sisi’s narrow and over-securitised way of ruling has led to a decline in state effectiveness, which means that the government is often unable to follow through in cooperation on projects agreed with international partners. Rising hardship and the repressive policies pursued by security services have weakened the country’s social contract. Even if there are few signs of any imminent large-scale protests, the mounting pressures on the population are storing up trouble for the future.

While Germany and the EU seek an increased partnership on migration and other issues, this should not be approached as if Europe needs cooperation more than Egypt does. The EU remains Egypt’s most likely partner in economic development and modernisation, and improved arrangements for handling the movement of people through and from Egypt should be part of this dialogue – but not at the expense of broader concerns.

Germany and Europe have a strong interest in signalling to President al-Sisi that a change of direction in Egypt is necessary. Reining in abusive security forces, widening consultation and representation in policymaking, and opening political space are necessary to set the country on a credible path to reform and stabilise it in the longer term. This in Europe’s interest: further deterioration in political and social conditions can only lead to higher outflows of migrants and insecurity to the EU. Moreover, the regime’s repressive approach means that any endorsement of al-Sisi’s as a respectable international leader comes at the expense of the liberal democratic values that Europe seeks to uphold.

We believe that it is important that alongside the quest for short-term cooperation, you send a clear message that Germany and Europe would like to see a shift in the government’s policies. If Germany appears to offer al-Sisi uncritical endorsement, it would only encourage him to persist on a path that will not fulfil the Egyptian people’s aspirations or promote European interests over the longer term. Uncritical engagement with Egypt is not realpolitik: it is not based on a realistic assessment of the dangerous mixture of repression and non-inclusive governance that currently prevails. Germany, and Europe, should engage with Egypt as a plural and vital country, not just with its regime.

The group is co-chaired by Anthony Dworkin from European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and Issandr El Amrani of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Other members are:

Koert Debeuf, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Europe (TIMEP)

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

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)

The EWGE has been endorsed by the following ECFR Council Members:

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG)

Gunilla Carlsson, former Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation

Marietje Schaake, Member of the European Parliament

Egypt After the Election

Originally published in Council on Foreign Relations

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi only released his economic program less than a week before elections, perhaps thinking it a waste of energy to put it up for debate. His priorities are nonetheless clear. Sisi wants to get the Egyptian state, battered by three roller-coaster years, back in shape, and with it, the country's economy. Belts must be tightened as difficult, long-postponed reforms are carried out, he argues. As he recently told a television audience, he has "nothing to give" the Egyptian people.

This brutal honesty is what differentiates Sisi's economic outlook. The challenges he has highlighted are the same ones that others, including former president Mohammed Morsi, whom he deposed last July, centered upon: conserving electricity, reforming fuel subsidies, creating jobs, improving infrastructure, reducing the fiscal deficit, and weaning Egypt off foreign assistance. What may give Sisi a better chance is the strong support he has received from major state institutions, as well as from the Gulf countries that have channeled some $20 billion to Egypt since last July.

Economic success, however, will hinge upon political choices. Two questions will loom large over prospects for Egypt's economy.

The first is whether the rift in Egyptian society caused by the overthrow of Morsi and subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups will impede reform and recovery. Sisi has vowed that there is no role for the Brotherhood in Egypt's future, but he will face unrest by disgruntled Islamists who want him to fail, just as Morsi's opponents continuously undermined him in 2012–2013. Major economic reform is likely impossible while that rift lingers, and growing state repression alienates even Sisi's one-time allies.

The second question is whom Sisi will surround himself with. His regime is still being formed, and competition to be in its circles of influence is fierce. The lobbies that made radical reform difficult, if not impossible, during Hosni Mubarak's rule are still present in the bloated, often corrupt state and among a business class that often benefited from cheap energy and other state favors. Private-sector businessmen worry about an outsized role for the military, Sisi's base, in the economy. And ordinary Egyptians, the biggest lobby of all, desperately want to see improvements in their lives. This battle to define economic policy is bound to impose constraints on Sisi's avowed "tough love" agenda.