CAIRO — It seems bizarre that only a year has passed since the European Parliament called for a halt to military aid and weapons sales to Egypt following the killing of the Italian student, Giulio Regeni, in Cairo. Member states demanded back then, in March 2016, that Egyptian authorities stop their human rights violations. They also ruled out any new cooperation initiatives from the Egyptian side, saying Egypt’s ongoing repression meant relations could not carry on as normal.
But this year, Cairo hosted one of the EU's most powerful figures, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who promised half a billion dollars to support Egypt’s economic program.
Germany was not the first European country to offer aid to Egypt: Days before Merkel’s March 2 visit, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Cairo on Feb. 25 and announced a $150 million financial package to support the country.
A review of data from Egypt’s State Information Service shows that, over the course of 2016, there was a clear rapprochement between Egypt and Europe, as reflected in two-way official visits. European states have become noticeably muted on Egypt’s rights violations. Meetings between the two sides have mainly focused on security and economic cooperation, reflecting a change in Europe’s position on the Egyptian regime.
EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis clearly indicated as much when he talked of “Egypt’s strategic importance to the EU” during a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Feb. 23.
Human rights lawyer Negad El Borai told Al-Monitor that Europe’s principle of defending democracy and human rights in the Middle East fell apart following the Arab Spring revolutions. He said Europe no longer hesitated to support dictatorial police states in order to halt irregular migration flows.
“Look at the talks between the two sides: We are discussing investment and tourism to bring in the dollars, and they are talking about illegal migration,” Borai said in a telephone interview.
While some European governments have reservations about working with the Egyptian regime, fearing a further deterioration of the security situation in the country, Borai said the Europeans had been reassured by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ability to bring the situation under control, even if that involved widespread violations. They are willing to support him in return for cooperation on the migration issue, while an improvement in human rights is not seen as an end in itself, he said.
In October 2016, the Egyptian Parliament passed a law to curb illegal immigration from its coast as a result of the increase of the number of illegal immigrants heading toward Europe. The Egyptian army announced in January 2017 that the coast guard had arrested in 2016 around 12,000 people of different nationalities who attempted to enter Egypt and then illegally depart to Europe from its coast.
Mohammad al-Arabi, chairman of the Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, agreed that migration is a key incentive pushing Europe to seek closer cooperation with Egypt.
It has become clear that Egypt’s security services are able to preserve the country’s stability, he told Al-Monitor. That means Europe now sees Egypt as an oasis of stability in the Middle East. From a geopolitical perspective, any deterioration in Egypt’s domestic situation would be a threat, rather than a boon, to Europe, he said.
Arabi said Europe understands the importance of Egypt’s role in the Libyan crisis and the fact that ongoing fighting in Libya directly threatens Europe’s security.
Egypt is playing an active role in the Libyan scene, as the Egyptian army chief of staff was tasked with facilitating negotiations between Libya’s warring parties in a bid to reach a political settlement that would end the conflict and guarantee stability in the country.
Gilan Gabar, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said fears over Russian influence in the region had pushed European governments to work more closely with Cairo, a key actor in Libya that could also play a role as a mediator to help resolve the Syrian crisis.
Gabar told Al-Monitor that Europe can work with Egypt's security apparatus, unlike other states in the region that are wracked by violence and have militias that are stronger than state armies.
She said securing the Mediterranean coast is a tough mission, so Europe depends on Egypt to help protect its own domestic security.
Terror attacks in European cities have forced a change in European policy toward the Middle East in terms of security, the economy and social development, the lack of which is a key reason for irregular migration, Gabar explained.
A high-ranking Egyptian security official who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor that Egypt has security cooperation with a number of European countries. The source said Egypt provides Europe with intelligence on the situation in Libya and also works to secure the Mediterranean coast.
The official added that security cooperation between Europe and Cairo serves the interests of both sides given the difficult security environment across the region.
Libya fell into violent chaos following the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi's regime in 2011. It has since become the third refuge of the Islamic State after Iraq and Syria.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has warned of a growing surge of irregular migrants from Egypt since 2014.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry said in an August 2016 press statement that crossing attempts from Egypt’s coast had risen by 11%, making Egypt the second most popular crossing country after Libya.