UK’s Sisi invitation signals business as usual with Egypt

When Abdel Fatah al-Sisi enters 10 Downing Street for talks with David Cameron on Thursday, it will be the latest in a series of diplomatic advances which confirm that the Egyptian president is now accorded broad international legitimacy, even as opponents condemn him as a dictator who seized power in an illegal coup.


In the run-up to Sisi’s arrival in London there have been protests from Egyptians, Britons and others angered by his overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi in June 2013 and the repression that has continued and deepened since then.

By issuing the invitation in July, the UK government signalled that it is business as usual with Cairo. Significant economic interests and urgent priorities elsewhere in the region – the war in Syria, the threat of Islamic State and instability in Libya – have trumped concerns over human rights, governance and political freedoms.

The US has acted similarly. Barack Obama initially refused to label Morsi’s overthrow a coup because that would have required the suspension of aid. After a brief froideur, Washington unfroze the delivery of Apache helicopters and resumed its $1.5bn (£1bn) annual aid package. Russia exploited that period to seize opportunities in Egypt when Vladimir Putin visited Cairo in February.

Sisi has been on a roll. On Saturday he was the keynote speaker at the Manama Dialogue, a prestigious strategic conference held annually in the Bahraini capital. In June he visited Berlin after the engineering giant Siemens secured an understanding about a multibillion-euro contract.

In September he addressed the UN general assembly in New York, and Egypt has become one of the 10 non-permanent members of the security council for a two-year period.

Sisi’s Egypt has become more assertive. It has broken ranks with the Saudis and other Gulf states by tacitly backing Bashar al-Assad. It closed its border with the Gaza Strip, helping Israel by increasing pressure on the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. It emphasises its role in fighting terrorism, especially the Isis-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai.

Britain is the largest foreign investor in Egypt, with more than £13bn at stake. In March the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, led a British delegation to Sharm el-Sheikh for the Egypt the Future conference. BP signed a £7.8bn investment deal in the Nile delta. Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, represented the UK at the opening of the new Suez canal. In September the chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, Mahmoud Hegazy, paid a four-day visit to the UK. He was granted temporary diplomatic immunity to avoid legal action over alleged torture.

Britain’s business- and security-driven agenda allows a margin for criticism. In August the UK ambassador in Cairo, John Casson, was rapped over the knuckles by the Egyptians when he publicly criticised the sentencing of three al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting terrorism. The UK expressed “deep concern” that the punishment would “undermine confidence in Egypt’s progress towards strong long-term stability based on implementing the rights granted by the Egyptian constitution”.

The poor turnout in last month’s parliamentary elections in Egypt hardly suggest growing confidence in a “democratic transition”. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, held talks in Cairo recently, but her focus was on migration and terrorism. Diplomatic cliches about “holding your nose but being prepared to engage with them so that you can influence the direction of travel” ring increasingly hollow.

Casson got the job after working for Cameron in Downing Street, a sign of the importance attached by the prime minister to relations with Egypt. Casson’s predecessor as UK ambassador, James Watt, was widely criticised for being uncritical of the highly unpopular Morsi before his removal.

“British policy on Egypt has swung completely in the opposite direction from where it stood during the short-lived and ill-fated Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood era, during which time the UK was very solicitous of the Brothers,” Michael Wahid Hanna, of the Century Foundation, told the Guardian. “In that sense, the current posture of robust engagement and a lack of distance and critical perspectives of the Sisi regime echoes the previous approach.”

Egypt, along with the UAE and Saudis, pushed hard for the UK to conduct an official review of the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, clearly hoping that the group would be banned in Britain. The report has not yet been published.

“The Sisi visit is yet another confirmation that Cairo’s new dispensation is rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community,” said HA Hellyer, an associate fellow of Rusi/Brookings.

“Visits to Berlin, the UN general assembly, now London, and a seat on the security council – that’s all clear. What is not clear is what London itself will really get out of a visit that it wouldn’t be getting anyway without one. On the major political files around human rights, reforms and so forth, there’s little expectation the visit will shift anything. So what’s the dividend? Even those who back the logic of engagement in Whitehall are at a bit of loss in that regard.”


سمير يوسف

أول صحفى فى النمسا منذ سنة 1970 عمل فى الصحافة وعمره 18 سنة فى جريدة الجمهورية والمساء وحريتى ثم الجرائد الألمانية دير إشبيجل وفى النمسا جريدة الإخو تسليتومج لمدة عشرون عاما وفى سنة 1991 اصدر اول صحيفة باللغة العربية والألمانية وهى جريدة الوطن لمدة 11 سنة ، عمل مراسل جريدة الجمهورية والمساء فى النمسا لمدة 31 سنة.

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