The UK’s balancing act between security, financial interest, and human rights

The United Kingdom has long employed a carrot and stick technique when dealing with Egypt, threatening to suspend aid and economic or military dealings in response to the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. However, such ultimatums are often fleeting, as the UK government places its own short-term interests over improvements in Egypt’s human rights record. The risk, though, is that this undermines the human rights situation in Egypt, and by doing so could worsen the security situation in the long run.

The methods used by the UK is illustrated by its response to the crackdown on protesters following the deposal of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013: in August, the UK suspended forty-nine licenses for arms sales to Egypt and decried the violence against civilians, in tandem with other EU members. But only two months later—when the violence had died down in the press—nearly half of those suspensions were lifted. Arms sales between the UK and Egypt resumed promptly, despite the still-dismal human rights conditions in the country. This instance suggested that public opinion, more so than any long-term strategy, may influence the UK to make human rights a policy consideration.

The UK government recently came under public scrutiny for funding security projects in Egypt. In August, a report by the Guardian highlighted criticisms of the UK government’s provision of almost £2 million in aid and defense funding, including support for policing, the criminal justice system, and the treatment of juvenile detainees. The funding was given to Egypt through the Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund (CSSF) according to documents obtained by rights group Reprieve through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Now that information regarding the UK’s security spending has been revealed, it remains to be seen whether the backlash in the media will pressure the UK to change its policy. If it did, however, just how much would change? Given Egypt’s human rights record—highlighted most recently in a sixty-three page report by Human Rights Watch detailing enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture—it is worth looking at the UK’s aid and trade with Egypt to understand what the potential implications are if it stops.

According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released in January 2017, the UK spent 0.7 percent of gross national income on international aid in 2015, the most recent year for which data is recorded. The UK administers overseas aid through the Department for International Development (DIFD), which has a budget of £1,550,000 for Egypt for 2017/2018. These funds are used on two active projects: the UK Action Against Corruption Programme (UKACT), and the CSSF Programme—Economic Stability in Egypt. The latter was completed in August 2017 £1,700,030 under it’s £2,000,000 budget, and the former is nearing completion in 2020 having only spent 1.88 percent of allocated funds. The DIFD’s official website does not offer specifics on how this money was spent.

If the past is any indicator, however, the funds may be put to use in ways that run counter to long-term security interests in Egypt by supporting a regime considered complicit in human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests and torture. According to Reprieve, £650,000 in security funding granted to Egypt in 2015/2016 through the CSSF “appeared to involve direct engagement with the Egyptian police and criminal justice system,” including programs relating to juvenile detainees. Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, told MENASource, “Without greater transparency, the UK risks becoming complicit in the Egyptian government’s grave human rights violations.”

Bríd Smith, an Irish member of parliament, sees the UK funding as part of a wider pattern by the EU to place trade and commerce before human rights. Smith told MENASource, “The UK government’s funding should come as no surprise given that the EU has dispersed much larger amounts to the current administration under various headings including, ironically, the guise of strengthening democratic institutions and processes,” she adds.

Besides the immediate risk of undermining citizens’ rights, a worsening human rights situation fosters public dissent and can be used by extremists to attract followers. This could worsen Egypt’s security situation in the long run, especially given the presence of ISIS’ Wilayat Sinai branch.

Outside of official aid, the UK has other security dealings with Egypt. Repriev­­e revealed that, since March 2015, the Northern Ireland Cooperation Overseas (NI-CO)—a state-owned UK business that has contracts with the Foreign Office—has been involved in a €10 million EU-funded project to support “the Administration of Justice” in Egypt, in partnership with Egypt’s Ministry of Justice.

The project includes the delivery of equipment by NI-CO for Egypt’s court system, including steel structures, security bars and benches for courtrooms, and surveillance equipment for ‘interview rooms.’

Security cooperation between Egypt and the UK also extends to lucrative arms deals. The UK government was criticized recently by several MPs and the Coalition Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) for arms deals with Egypt worth £8.8 million in the last year. Lack of transparency surrounding the CSSF has come into question due to the lack of availability of basic details such as what the fund is for, how it is managed and who is responsible for it, according to a report by the UK parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. The UK government also failed to publish the CSSF’s programs and projects or an annual report on the CSSF for 2015/16, the report added.

In July the CSSF published detailed country programs for 2017/2018. According to Alice Gillham, press and communications officer at Reprieve, the government decided to publish this information at least partly as a result of public pressure from MPs and several human rights organizations – last month, the Independent Commission on Aid Impact also announced its own inquiry into the Fund. 

In its program summary, the CSSF says it is spending £900,000 on security cooperation to “reduce the threat of terrorism and extremism in Egypt.” It details that the UK is working with the Egyptian Ministry of Interior to improve short-term effectiveness and lay the ground work for longer-term reform. The summary maintains that “all support will be compatible with UK human rights standards,” but also highlights that “UK companies remain the largest foreign investors in Egypt,” suggesting that UK aid to Egypt may be more motivated by a desire for business to continue as usual than to challenge the status quo of human rights.

The UK is significantly invested in Egypt, and Egypt’s dependency on British aid could increase now that the US has moved to cut and delay economic and military aid to the country. While much of the UK funds spent in Egypt have done little to bolster human rights, and has, at times, even undermined them, Egypt would still be considerably hurt if the UK were to pull back aid. Thus, the UK is in a unique position to leverage Egypt to improve its human rights, and through that the broader security situation, by taking a stand in making aid and arms deals conditional on concrete improvements in that area.

Dalia Rabie is a journalist and one of the co-founders of Mada Masr. Her work was featured in Daily News Egypt, Egypt Independent and Mada Masr where she worked as an editor and reporter

Image: Photo: Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry (R) meets with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at Tahrir Palace in Cairo, Egypt. Picture taken February 25, 2017. Taken by Amr Abdallah Dalsh