Commentary: The EU and Egyptian democracy

On June 20, 2006, Mohammed Sharkawi and Karim Al Shaer were finally released from prison. They had been beaten up and incarcerated after peacefully protesting in support of judges who had contested the fairness of Egypt”s 2005 parliamentary elections. The two are members of Kifaya, an Egyptian opposition party championing political reform.

Such events, as well as the country”s recent constitutional amendments, are testament to the continuous democratic backsliding taking place in Egypt. Meanwhile, Brussels-Cairo relations recently reached their apex with the signing of the EU-Egypt Action Plan, a document covering economic cooperation and political dialogue. The European Union has pronounced that it is “committed to the promotion of democracy and good governance and the rule of law.” Of course, the European approach to democracy promotion is far more reliant on soft power than the Washington model. However, as authoritarian rule continues to flourish, and President Hosni Mubarak grooms his son Gamal to be his successor, the European Union would be advised to play more of the cards available in its political deck.

It was American, not European, rhetoric on democracy that spurred debate on political reform in Cairo in 2005. Now that the United States appears to be shifting away from democracy promotion, it is time the EU took the lead on this issue. So far, the European Union has refrained from commenting on Egypt”s constitutional amendments, but strong language from Brussels could reinvigorate the debate on reform, and protect the genuine voices of Egypt”s opposition. Moreover, the Emergency Law, under which Sharkawi and Shaer were arrested, is to be replaced by a new anti-terrorism law in 2008. Pro-democracy pronouncements on the eve of its promulgation could work to temper the more authoritarian articles in the bill.

Rhetoric alone, however, will not suffice. Brussels has been loath to use the powerful conditionality clauses enshrined in its various political documents to induce democratic reform. This, however, contrasts with the willingness to use this principle when economic restructuring has lagged. Such dual poses give the impression that the EU”s support for democracy is insincere, and bolsters the confidence of autocrats. It is, finally, time to begin raising the likelihood – first in private meetings, and then in public forums – of implementing these clauses. This must be combined with the provision of genuine, positive rewards for rapid completion of reforms, offering incentives such as flexibility on the issue of migrants” rights. Without sticks and more carrots, the European Union”s ability to engender political progress will not be particularly powerful.

As the action plan has already been ratified, seeking to amend it, now, would have limited success. It is unfortunate that only 7 percent of its budget is available for supporting political reform, and that any programs launched must have the approval of the Cairo government. To ensure that the limited reforms expected will be fully implemented, the European Union should consider drawing up a timetable to mark progress. Such an initiative would not only make clear to Egyptian officials that the EU is expecting real improvements, but could then be used to aid the implementation of both the positive and negative conditionality clauses.

Given that the action plan allocated only 13 million euros ($17.8 million) for “political development,” much of the onus to achieve reform is placed on another European instrument, the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). Up until 2003, the EIDHR assigned its funds to traditional human rights programs rather than projects with a political reform content. This has begun to change. Nonetheless, to extend the Initiative”s effectiveness, the system by which grants are allocated also must be altered. Currently, projects are funded through a complicated process of calls for proposals. This, in the tactful words of an EU official, “means that the quality can vary from year to year.” A side effect of the process is that the organizations most likely to succeed in receiving grants are often Western-oriented, with limited grassroots appeal.

To harness the Initiative”s promise, research committees liaising with the EU delegation to Egypt should be created. These could identify areas of maneuver, and pinpoint potential projects and civil society actors that had previously been overlooked. Such points of contact could include professional associations, trade unions, and academic societies. That Islamists often dominate the two former organizations must be recognized. However, ignoring independent voices is not likely to reduce the Islamist appeal, unless economic conditions are much improved. Sidelining such voices would only highlight the subjective nature of Brussels” commitment to democracy, discrediting both the EU and the democratic system.

Another possible step that the EIDHR could take is the provision of party aid. Such programs can include helping parties develop their message, enable outreach, and consolidate their organizational abilities. Apart from extending the political sphere, these projects would have the added advantage of strengthening liberal Egyptian parties, who suffer from various problems related to packaging their message. In addition, projects undertaken by the EIDHR need not be agreed upon by national governments, making it the ideal vehicle for such initiatives.

However, such endeavors would clearly require the European Union to extend its funding to Egypt under the EIDHR; currently, only €1 million are provided. EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita, Ferrero-Waldner, recently stated that “concrete, measurable results … seen as relevant to all elements of Egyptian society” must be achieved through EU-Egypt relations. We now look forward to these words being translated into action, especially in the case of democracy promotion.

Dana Moss is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.