Sisi in London: What to Expect

From November 4 to 6, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be in the UK on an official visit. It marks the first trip to London by an Egyptian president since the January 25 revolutionary uprising in 2011. The trip raises a number of questions around Western engagement with Egypt under Sisi, particularly from one of Europe’s most powerful nations, the United Kingdom.

London has long been an important Western capital for Egyptians, under any regime or ruling authority. Trade has been a critical part of the relationship, and the volume of trade is set to increase, if current trends continue. On a regional level, Egypt is close to the nexus of several key foreign policy issues important to the UK. The quagmire of Libya, which is on Egypt’s western border; the question of Palestine and the Israeli occupation, which is to the east; and to a lesser extent, the Syrian civil war. Finally, when it comes to international Islamist militancy, the two countries have openly declared themselves against the forces of Islamist extremism, both domestically and abroad.

Yet, the visit has attracted a great deal of negative attention, with a number of British politicians requesting the withdrawal of the invitation. Some British lawyers have also called for members of the Egyptian delegation to be served arrest warrants upon arrival.

London never officially called the military enforced suspension of a democratic experiment in July 2013 a ‘coup’—but few in the establishment were willing to accord it the same degree of enthusiasm as the revolutionary uprising in 2011.

The ensuing excessive use of force by state forces led to the killing of hundreds of civilians in the months following Morsi’s ouster, as detailed by international and Egyptian rights groups. Human Rights Watch went as far as to stipulate that the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba’a Square in August 2013 “probably amounts to crimes against humanity.” The UK government itself raised many of these issues in public statements, calling for an ‘independent investigation.’ Rights organizations continue to issue harsh criticisms about Cairo’s record of political openness, media freedoms (including the noted ‘Al-Jazeera Trial,’ which included several British journalists), and the imprisonment of peaceful protesters.

Beyond human rights, there have been concerns raised privately by officials in Whitehall that Cairo is proceeding problematically on a number of issues in which London hopes Egypt will be a positive partner. On Sinai, London agrees with Cairo that the insurgency requires a firm and comprehensive response, but along with other Western capitals, has been advising different tactics associated with counterinsurgencies and counterterrorism. It also views the current strategy as unsuitable in ending the insurgency, with sources in Sinai considering the possibility of the tactics being counterproductive. Analysts such as the noted Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment, Michele Dunne, point out that resentment at Cairo’s response runs the risk of fuelling further resentment on the ground. The Tony Blair Foundation, whose patron is strongly supportive of Cairo and Sisi, has also expressed concerns over Cairo’s tactics.

While London certainly recognizes the genuine militant threat Egypt faces from violent extremists, such as ISIS and al-Qa’eda, its views on the Brotherhood differ somewhat. Cameron’s government does not view the Brotherhood with any degree of fondness, but the release of a review ordered in 2014 into the group which Egypt labelled a terrorist organization, has been put on hold. While the findings have not been released, reports indicate that London will not follow suit in proscribing the group as a terrorist organization due to lack of evidence. The worry expressed by rights groups and, at least privately within Britain’s security establishment, is that the repressive measures taken by Cairo will make it far more likely that Brotherhood members will be more easily drawn into deeper radicalism, rather than reduce the potential for conflict. Such issues have led to some influential British media outlets such as The Economist to argue that Sisi is ‘Worse than Mubarak.’

When it comes to the Syrian quagmire, London views the regime of Bashar al-Assad as part of the problem—while Cairo’s position is supportive of recent Russian moves to bolster Assad. On Libya, Cairo has voiced tremendous support of Tobruk, with US officials claiming Egypt coordinated airstrikes on Tripoli in 2014, which was not part of the UK’s strategy. While officially, Cairo endorsed the UN process, as did London, differences seem to abound on what to do next.

Nevertheless, the British government defended the decision to invite the Egyptian president, saying that “the stronger our working relationship, the more able we are to have necessary and frank discussions about issues on which we disagree.” British Ambassador to Egypt John Casson revealed that the three topics on the agenda are: “fighting terrorism and extremism in Egypt and the region, aiding Egypt to become a “stable and prosperous” democracy, and economic, trade, and educational ties.” He also stated Cameron would voice his desire to see more political progress, which is considered the “basis” for long-term stability in Egypt. London confirmed that “no issues are off the table in these discussions” and that by “having a strong engaging relationship with a range of different countries, this allows us to raise a number of concerns and talk about them in person.”

The subtext seems to be that London does not view Cairo as a ‘stable and prosperous democracy,’ but that a ‘strong working relationship’ enables London to have ‘necessary and frank discussions’ about those items which it thinks Cairo needs to consider in order to become a stable democracy. In private conversations, many British officials will likely confirm the need for the ‘frank discussions’—fewer, on the other hand, seem to think Cairo will engage fruitfully in those discussions. Based on previous precedent, it also remains somewhat dubious that London will engage forcefully in such conversations publicly, despite the calling to do so by human rights groups.

Sisi’s visit to London links to a wider question around whether bilateral engagements with Cairo lead to positive benefits in Egypt, or not. A number of western capitals have voiced concerns already on the need for judicial reform, an overhaul of the security sector, opening up of the political space, and more generally on wider protections of fundamental rights. As yet, Cairo has shown resistance to such recommendations, and frequently, the suggestion is that western capitals do not have ‘leverage.’

The ‘leverage’ argument is not without merit—but it is incomplete. Given the geopolitical background of the region at present, Cairo has an advantageous position. Two of the big regional powers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are deeply supportive of Cairo, without openly calling for wide scale reforms – even on the economic front. Bilateral efforts from the UK or other western capitals have not been taken with much seriousness. Multilateral efforts might be more effective, particularly if taken in coordination with Gulf states, despite difficulties involved. London previously applauded the release of 100 prisoners in September, including two journalists—but such gestures ought to be viewed as opportunities for multilateral coordination on meaningful reforms. Members of Egypt’s own state organization for human rights have pointed out a desperate need for prison reform, for example; the judiciary and security sector are other areas where reforms are called for. 

Such multilateral efforts, however, appear rather unlikely. Against the backdrop of Libya, Syria, Iraq, refugees, and ISIS, Egypt is not only low on the priority list for international players to engage with more seriously, but looks relatively less problematic, even if the country is in the midst of an ‘unsustainable stability.’ The invitation to the Egyptian presidency to come to the UK, therefore, is likely to grant the former a reconfirmation that the international community has reintegrated Cairo, despite the various critiques that could be justifiably levied. For the UK, it’s not altogether clear what benefits the visit will entail, and Mr Cameron will probably be asked far beyond this visit as to what those benefits were.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He is also Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Before joining the Council, he was a Nonresident Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a Research Associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Related Experts: H.A. Hellyer

Image: Photo: Egypt Presidency