The long arm of the dictator
When Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took office two years ago it was with promises of greater security, stability, economic progress and social justice for his country. Yet now, halfway through his term, the country is in a worse state than ever. Police violence and state repression against civil society and political opposition have grown.
The number of terrorist attacks reflects the ever increasing degree of radicalisation. Tourism, which is crucially important to the country's economy, has collapsed due to the lack of security. The large-scale economic projects backed by Sisi may have benefited his supporters, but they have had little positive impact for the wider population. Egyptian society is becoming increasingly divided and unstable.
Incompetent institutions or deliberate policy?
The explanation often given for this state of affairs is that government institutions – whether involved in security, justice or the economy – are both unable to cope and tend to operate as a law unto themselves. This being the case, any impetus for reform from the top will either be inadequately implemented or blocked completely at an institutional level.
The case of the brutal murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni is often cited as proof of this theory. Regeni, who had been involved in research into the role of the country's independent trade unions, disappeared in Cairo at the end of January. His mutilated body, discovered nine days later, showed he had been subjected to brutal torture. Many national and international observers have since come to the conclusion that Regeni was most likely murdered by the Egyptian security services, without the authorisation, maybe even without the knowledge, of the political leadership.
"Nobody is perfect"
The dysfunctional state explanation is one that Egypt's rulers are happy to play along with. "Nobody is perfect" has become a favourite retort of Egyptian diplomats whenever allegations of human rights violations, misgovernment or corruption are raised by their western counterparts. The concession of admitting the "need for reform" of dysfunctional institutions has proved particularly useful when it comes to encouraging international donors to provide funding for aid programmes.
The argument that blames everything on weak institutions does not hold water however: from the very outset, Sisi's policies have been geared towards exclusion and polarisation. Back in 2013, demonstrations by supporters of the ousted President Morsi were brutally put down on the orders of Sisi, who was then head of the armed forces – hundreds were killed and the divisions within Egyptian society deepened.
When he became president, Sisi set about doing everything in his power to legalise excessive police violence and acts of repression against civil society. In the absence of a parliament, he introduced legislation that would provide the framework for an extremely restrictive political regime.
He also put economic mechanisms in place to enable him to complete an array of controversial mega projects, such as the hugely expensive Suez Canal extension and the construction of Egypt's first nuclear power plant. His often articulated vision of unrestricted state sovereignty has more than a touch of the totalitarian.
It is unlikely that every action of the executive can be traced back to a directive from the presidential palace; there is no doubt however that Sisi has consciously imposed a political framework that shapes any action taken by the state.
EU must distance itself from Sisi
Given the policies he has pursued to date, Sisi's assertion that he wants to change Egypt for the better lacks credibility. On a wave of euphoric mass support, he had the chance to introduce reforms when he came to power. Now, after three years in the saddle, first as head of the armed forces, then as president, that chance appears to have been passed up.
International aid for Sisi can only ever be justified when there are clear indications that the president has the will and desire to pursue a change of course. Rather than just blindly coupling aid to the person of the president, it should be made dependent on actual developments in Egypt.
The clearest development in the country at the present time, however, is the growing unrest. Demonstrations against Sisi's policies, against police violence and state despotism, are no longer confined to human rights campaigners and political activists. Recent demonstrations have also seen groups such as doctors and journalists taking to the streets. Any realistic policy decisions with regard to Egypt must be cognisant of the fact that Sisi's policies are likely to further exacerbate the political, economic and social situation in the country. Criticism has to be clear and specific; rather than remaining a matter for backroom debate, it needs to find its way onto the agenda of international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council.
It was there two years ago, that Germany and other EU countries voiced strong criticism of the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt. The next meeting in June offers an opportunity to build on that and increase pressure on the Egyptian government.
Political inclusion and better governance
In addition, the EU should make it clear that it holds Sisi directly accountable for the situation and publicly distance itself from him. This would help to make it clear to the regime that there needs to be a change in both political direction and leadership. The international backing given to Sisi is making it more difficult for critics inside the regime – though they are already making themselves heard – to change things and find a new and less compromised leader.
European policy must attempt to frame the necessary support for Egypt in such a way that it does not contribute to an external legitimisation of a president incapable of uniting his country. It needs to signal Europe's willingness to give its full support to a fresh start, to political inclusion and to better governance. However any notion that such a fresh start might be attainable under President Sisi is unrealistic – the recent escalation in Egypt has rendered him persona non grata.
It would make sense in these circumstances for Europe to noticeably reduce co-operation with him. Such a move would, first and foremost, avoid the symbolic approval that state visits or publicly expressed approval for his policies confers upon him. These policies, after all, have thus far only succeeded in leading Egypt ever deeper into crisis.
Lars Brozus & Stephan Roll
© Qantara.de 2016
Lars Brozus is a senior researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He is an expert on authoritarian regimes. Stephan Roll is also a member of the SWPs research division; his area of expertise is Egypt. The Institute advises the German government in all foreign and security policy matters.