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Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers
Open Letter on Egypt to European Leaders and Policymakers
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts
Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

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.

A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, on 6 July 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.

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Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts. Two analytical concepts – conflict clusters and concentric circles – can help policymakers disentangle the region’s conflicts, provide greater clarity in diagnosis and accompany a simple principle that should underpin all approaches: first, do no harm.

Overview: A New Way of Looking at MENA Conflicts

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events, occurring at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions, compound the problem. Widening and increasingly intersecting conflicts are having a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and its people. As a result, what happens in the region is no longer confined to it: radiating crises have started to infect relations between regional and global powers, forcing policymakers in world capitals to respond in pursuit of their nations’ strategic interests. The challenge is to untangle the knot of conflicts analytically: to understand how various historical strands have interacted to create the bewildering composite of conflict drivers and actors that pose myriad threats to local, regional and even global stability and then to articulate policy responses that chart paths toward de-escalation and, eventually, more sustainable arrangements for states’ and communities’ peaceful coexistence. Most importantly, they should not make matters worse.

Grasping the roots and primary characteristics of the region’s swift-changing complexion requires a new way of looking at it. We can no longer simply study conflicts in isolation, such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. This remains important, but we need to add new dimensions: how a single conflict has yielded secondary conflicts to form conflict “clusters”; how conflicts within a cluster have started to bleed into conflicts in another cluster; and how individual conflicts in the MENA region have broadened to suck in, first, regional powers and, then, global actors as a result of power and security vacuums created in the chaos of war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, which dates from Western powers’ decision a century ago to support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East (first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration), has sprung the confines of the territory known as Israel and Palestine to cover new terrain, in particular Lebanon, and sprout new conflict actors, such as Hizbollah. Today, Hizbollah participates in the Syrian civil war, which has roots outside the Israel-Arab conflict, and is allied with Iran, whose ascendancy in the region following the failed 2011 popular uprisings has provoked destabilising responses from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially in Yemen. Meanwhile, these same states are projecting influence in North Africa to prevail in what was originally a separate struggle between competing political expressions of Sunni Islamism, involving the Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, the suppurating Syrian and Yemeni wars have infected global powers such as Russia and the U.S., who are deploying their tremendous weight on behalf of one side but are so far unable to do so decisively and forge durable settlements.

Policy responses directed toward individual events in individual conflicts – say, the Libyan migrant crisis, or the rise of jihadists in Syria –may end up doing more harm than good. Not only because such policies tend to be rushed and overly securitised, but also because they ignore the deeper drivers behind these individual events, thereby aggravating them. External military support of certain Kurdish parties in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a good example: it boosted Kurdish hopes of outside support for their longstanding aspiration for greater autonomy, even independence. They chose to become outside powers’ willing proxies to advance their own agendas. This, in turn, gave rise to new and additional crises instead of lowering regional tensions.

A new methodology is needed to address these post-2011 conflicts through both analysis and policy. The risk of pursuing policies that do further harm has increased, especially as conflicts of different origins metastasise and intersect, creating a new generation of non-state conflict actors and drawing in both regional and global powers. I propose two analytical concepts to help bring greater clarity, one new, the other old: conflict clusters and concentric circles. I then explore how these interact with external interventions of various sorts.

Instead of policy prescriptions for individual conflicts, I place the perplexing array of intersecting MENA conflicts and conflict actors in a framework that elucidates what motivates these actors and what drives their conflicts. And I will suggest a set of principles that should undergird any approach by global and regional powers toward these conflicts, based on the need to contain the current situation without making matters worse. This study is based on years of field research in the MENA region by me and my colleagues at the International Crisis Group.[fn]All references to “interviews” concern interviews done by either me or my Crisis Group colleagues.Hide Footnote

Joost Hiltermann, the lead contributor to this paper, would like to thank the following for providing essential background research: Crisis Group consultants Dimitar Bechev, Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, and Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg; also, many thanks are due to Crisis Group’s entire MENA team for providing insights and data, and for reviewing the results, for which the lead contributor remains wholly and solely responsible.

To read the full 47-page text, please open the PDF.