Rights-Egypt: EU Criticism Finds Some Unofficial Welcome

Rights-Egypt: EU Criticism Finds Some Unofficial Welcome

The European Parliament adopted a resolution last month censuring Egypt”s human rights record, and urging Cairo to embrace substantial political reforms. But while Egyptian officialdom responded angrily to the criticism, reactions among independent political figures have been more ambivalent.

“The opposition, like the government, sees the European resolution as interference in Egypt”s internal affairs,” Gamal Zahran, political science professor at Suez Canal University and independent MP, told IPS. “That being said, we must also acknowledge the existence of serious and endemic human rights problems.”

On Jan. 17, the Strasbourg-based legislative body approved a resolution urging the Egyptian government to take “a range of measures to improve democracy and human rights.” In particular, the document called on Cairo to lift the longstanding state of emergency, guarantee judicial independence, investigate claims of police torture, and “end the harassment of journalists and human-rights defenders.”

The resolution further urged the government to amend legislation governing the use of military tribunals and called for the release of jailed opposition figure Ayman Nour, currently serving a five-year prison sentence on forgery charges.

The European Parliament (EP) declaration drew an unusually sharp reaction from government officials.

“Egypt totally rejects this resolution,” Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said shortly afterwards. Egypt, he said, “has an effective legislative and constitutional framework to secure the adequate exercise of freedom of expression and opinion for every citizen.”

Fathi Sorour, parliamentary speaker and stalwart of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), condemned the resolution as an infringement on Egypt”s sovereignty over its own affairs.

“The age of (foreign) capitulations is over, and Egypt no longer accepts the language of foreign dictates,” he was quoted as saying in the state press.

According to local human rights activists, however, a number of significant Egypt-EU protocols expressly aim to promote human rights and democracy. These include the 1995 Barcelona Declaration and a Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement signed in 2004, both of which encourage “political dialogue” on a range of issues.

“Signed agreements between Egypt and the EU clearly give both parties the right to issue resolutions on human rights,” Hafez Abu-Saeda, secretary-general of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, told IPS. “The government”s reaction, therefore, seemed overly defensive.”

Hamdi Hassan, prominent MP for the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, agreed, voicing surprise over the government”s prickly reaction to the declaration.

“Cairo signed the EU association agreement, which allows the Europeans to comment on human rights in Egypt,” Hassan told IPS. “So why is it complaining now?”

Tellingly, the government reacted with much greater vehemence to the European resolution than it did to a decision by the U.S. Congress in December to withhold 100 million dollars in annual U.S. financial assistance to Egypt. That decision was also based on Egypt”s poor human rights record, as well as claims by Israel that Egyptian authorities were not doing enough to secure the border with the Gaza Strip.

But despite the threat of a significant cut in financial aid, the congressional resolution (which may still be reversed pending a decision by the U.S. State Department) met with a relatively muted response from Cairo.

“The government reacted much more vociferously to the European resolution than it did to the congressional vote in the U.S.,” said Zahran. “This is because the EP doesn”t have the same capacity to implement its decisions as does the U.S. Congress.”

The U.S. gives Egypt much more financial aid — some 1.6 billion dollars annually, Zahran added. “The regime can”t live without American assistance, and therefore held its tongue.”

Notably, the EP resolution made no reference to the recent mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, or to the fact that 40 of the group”s leaders are currently on trial before a military court on charges of money laundering and “financing the activities of a banned group.”

“I won”t comment on how the Europeans chose to phrase their resolution,” Hassan said. “But they did denounce the use of military tribunals, and Muslim Brotherhood members are the only ones currently facing trial in military courts.” (END/2008)