Stability or Human Rights?

In order not to put its credibility as an international player at risk, the European Union must demonstrate a consistent commitment to human rights in its relations to Egypt, says Isabel Schäfer

Protests against the jailing of Egyptian blogger Karim Amer (photo: RSF)
Activists protest the jailing of Karim Amer, an Egyptian blogger - his arrest is yet another setback for human rights in Egypt

​​The sentencing of 22-year-old blogger Karim Amer to four years in prison by a court in Alexandria on February 22, 2007 signifies a setback for freedom of opinion and the press in Egypt. The regime is obviously making an example of the defendant as a warning to the burgeoning blogger scene (approx. 3000).

Suspended from the venerable Al-Ahzar University for "blasphemy," the student is now accused of publishing texts on his website that were critical of the university, of President Hosni Mubarak and of Islam in general.

Karim Amer thus managed to violate several taboos at once. He primarily found fault with the teaching methods at Al-Ahzar University, as well as pointing out human rights violations and making a plea for secularism.

It's the economy, stupid – not human rights!

Amnesty International ranks Karim Amer as a non-violent political prisoner who has been convicted for peacefully expressing his opinion, and criticizes the Egyptian legislation for specifying prison sentences for acts that are nothing more than the peaceful practice of freedom of opinion, thought, conscience and religion. The organization points out that this does not correspond with international standards.

Is it an ironic twist of fate or a political signal that, almost concurrently with the blogger's conviction, the action plan for the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was accepted by Egypt and the EU on March 6, 2007? Negotiations on the plan were very prolonged. As was already the case with the association treaty for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), the Egyptian and European negotiators were unable to reach an agreement on the text passages dealing with human rights.

There is no direct connection between the two incidents, but the Egyptian regime is ultimately sending the message that they are willing to cooperate with the EU economically, but don't want it intervening in the country's human rights situation.

Thus, on the one hand, the long-term economic implications of the action plan are being underestimated, and on the other, the Egyptians are using the human rights problem to demonstrate their own position of power to the European mediators, while trying to legitimate their cooperation with the West to a people that holds increasingly anti-Western sentiments.

Money for nothing?

The action plan that has now been resolved defines the agenda for cooperation for the next three to five years, and is designed to support the Egyptian reform agenda. Eight sub-committees were established, including one on "Political Issues: Human Rights and Democracy." For the period from 2007 to 2010, 558 million euros have been budgeted for the action plan, and in 2010 an additional 250 to 300 million are to be invested.

Human rights organizations such as the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) have expressed disappointment over the action plan. The wording is so watered down, they maintain, that it seems more like a letter of intent than a joint working plan.

Nor were the recommendations of the human rights experts incorporated. Positive points are that the action plan once again calls on both parties to safeguard the independence of the judiciary; to improve conditions in the prisons; to foster freedom of opinion, assembly and association; and to fight against discrimination, racism and xenophobia.

Kant's theory of democratic peace

With the European Neighbourhood Policy it launched in 2004, the EU reformed its instruments and reinforced its push for democratization. The supreme long-term goal of the ENP is to build democracies in the countries bordering on the EU. The ENP is founded on Emmanuel Kant's theory of democratic peace, which assumes that democracies fight fewer wars amongst themselves and are more mindful of human rights.

A central program for promoting democracy and human rights is the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). This program is to be financed from the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) in force from 2007 to 2013.

In order to foster democracy, human rights and good governance, the so-called "Governance Facility" was created – a special budget line designed to induce political reforms.

Positive conditionality

The EU Commission hopes that the new mechanisms will give it a more powerful form of positive conditionality. In concrete terms, this means promoting projects in the areas of good governance, democratic practices and values, the constitutional state, exchange and mobility between individuals and groups in the partner countries, and cultural and civil dialogue.

But some European diplomats are quite skeptical of whether it will be possible to find any acceptable democratization or human rights projects to support.

There continues to be very little willingness to institute reforms. The question of the conflicting goals of the EU remains unresolved: stability on the one hand, democratization and respect for human rights on the other. A connection between fulfilling the conditions set as contingent for any future prospects of joining the EU, as was the case in Eastern Europe, is missing here.

Conditions can only be imposed if a process of political reform is already underway and if both the government and public opinion are ready for it.

The necessity of a long-term perspective

But this does not mean that the EU should simply sit back and hope for better times. In order not to put its credibility as an international player at risk, the EU must demonstrate a consistent commitment to human rights. When political pressure must be exerted, however, as happens frequently, just the opposite can result, i.e. a worsening in the situation of the human rights advocates, who are then seen as allies of the West and must suffer even more repression. It all remains a political balancing act.

The goal of the EU can only be to assist with creating institutional and political conditions that enable social transformation to take place. It must always work with a long-term perspective in mind, stimulating reforms and implementing indirect policies. These are the only criteria by which it can be judged.

At the same time, the EU must be more alert and more demanding, in particular as regards adherence with signed agreements. It should also lobby for the release of the blogger Karim, because, regardless of what one may think of his texts, four years in prison for his "crime" and his age are simply unreasonable.

Isabel Schäfer

© 2007

Isabel Schäfer is among the academic staff of the study group Politics in the Middle East at the Free University of Berlin, Germany.

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

10 Years Barcelona Process
Mixed Results
With currently 25 EU members and 10 Mediterranean countries participating in the project, the Barcelona process is something of a diplomatic masterwork in European multilateralism. Ten years after its initiation, Isabel Schäfer takes stock

The Blogger Scene in Egypt
A Small, Assertive Community
If you want to know where the next demonstration will be held for the Egyptian civil rights movement, you need only log onto one of the many local political blogs. Web diaries in Egypt have become a firmly established part of the civil rights movement along the Nile. Mona Naggar reports

Online Media Censorship in Egypt
Internet Police on the Nile
Although the Egyptian government initially promoted the spread of Internet use, the new media has today become a thorn in the side of many state authorities. Censorship and the banning of websites are no longer a rarity, as Nelly Youssef reports from Cairo

Democracy and Civil Society
Intellectuals in Muslims countries often do not see religion as a hindrance to the democratization of their societies. In their view, the main obstacle is instead the fear on the part of the present rulers of forfeiting their power. We a look at the debate in our dosssier