Europe's dangerous Egypt policy

Egypt has never been called to account for the murder of Giulio Regeni, nor for the numerous human rights violations committed by the Sisi regime. Focusing only on stability, European governments are increasingly losing touch with actual developments in Egypt, say Lars Brozus and Stephan Roll

By Stephan Roll und Lars Brozus

On 3 February 2016, the mutilated body of Giulio Regeni was discovered on the outskirts of Cairo. The Italian scholar had been conducting research in Egypt on the development of independent trade unions. This evidently attracted the attention of the country's security authorities, who fear any form of unmonitored civil society organisation as potential opposition.

Regeni was last heard from on the evening of 25 January 2016, the fifth anniversary of the start of the popular uprising against the Mubarak regime, a day when Cairo was swarming with security forces. Multiple witness statements and circumstantial evidence indicate that Regeni was subjected to inhumane torture by Egyptian security forces for days. Although an in-depth investigation by the Italian public prosecutor's office was able to identify four high-ranking employees of the Egyptian security apparatus as the main perpetrators, the authorities in Cairo have stubbornly refused to initiate criminal proceedings.

Europeans upgrade Egypt's status rather than pushing to uncover the truth

In the wake of the murder, European governments and parliaments have repeatedly demanded clarification of the incident. The German government, which itself has gathered intelligence on the case, has addressed Regeni's fate in a series of bilateral talks. However, the incident has not had any consequences for Europe's political and economic relations with the most populous country to their south.

"[N]ot much has changed in EU policy towards Egypt since 2019 and recommendations from human rights groups and the European Parliament remain largely unheeded."

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— Reprieve (@Reprieve) January 28, 2021



And yet the gruesome murder of Giulio Regeni is not an isolated case. Ever since the military coup in 2013, led by then defence minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the state of Egyptian civil society has deteriorated dramatically. International observers estimate that there are as many as 60,000 political prisoners languishing in the horrendously overcrowded Egyptian prisons. Local human rights activists report widespread and systematic use of torture at police stations.

According to Human Rights Watch, Egypt is among the ten states where the death penalty is most frequently imposed and carried out. And Reporters Without Borders cites Egypt under President Sisi as one of the countries harbouring the highest number of imprisoned journalists.

But instead of holding Egypt's leadership politically responsible for this situation, the Europeans have repeatedly upgraded its status in recent years. Since Regeni's death, there have been a number of high-level state visits. Bilateral development loans and, not least, generous support under a comprehensive IMF agreement have been granted without any political conditions being imposed. Particularly worthy of note is that arms exports also continue to flow on a grand scale. Egypt is a major client not only for Germany and France. Even Italy continues to supply the country with weapons.A policy with unforeseeable consequences

The Europeans justify this policy by citing the need to stabilise the country. They fear developments like those in Libya and Syria, which could be accompanied by massive violence, terrorism and renewed waves of migration. On the surface, their strategy seems sound, because Egypt has hermetically sealed off the country's maritime borders, preventing people from fleeing across the Mediterranean. European companies such as the German Siemens Group are profiting from lucrative business deals for large-scale infrastructure projects. And for European arms manufacturers, the military regime's drive for rearmament has provided a welcome economic boost.

The notion that human rights violations are simply the price to pay for a development dictatorship that is allowing Egypt to achieve stability and prosperity has however already proven to be a fallacy in the past. Ten years ago, mass protests in Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo led to the collapse of the authoritarian Mubarak regime. The Europeans, who supported the president at the time, were forced to concede that the country's supposed stability was in fact extremely fragile. Is the same mistake being made today?


From the outside, it is not apparent that any decisive action has yet been taken to finally curb the endemic problems of mismanagement, corruption, lawlessness and poor governance that have long plagued Egypt. The few available reports from independent observers speak instead of increasing mismanagement by the military, rising poverty and growing social inequality. The situation has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the true extent of which is evidently being hushed up by the regime.

It is extremely difficult to gain a reliable picture of what is going on in the country, as it is currently nearly impossible to report independently from Egypt or even to conduct research on the ground. Regeni's brutal murder set a precedent that discourages other scholars, journalists, civil society organisations, or political foundations from travelling there.

Extensive control of information is essential if the Sisi regime is to pursue its own interests. The regime has been successful in procuring fresh loans from international financial institutions such as the IMF by warning that the stability of the country is at risk. In the next breath it then turns around and emphasises Egypt's stability as a regional cooperation partner when cajoling European governments to sign arms contracts.

The evident realpolitik that forms the tacit conceptual framework for the continued cooperation by European governments with the Egyptian regime is thus increasingly becoming an unrealpolitik – a policy based on scarcely verifiable statements made by a regime that is playing for time, with the goal of maximising its own chances of survival. To that end, it seems willing to stoop to anything, even murdering a 28-year-old graduate student.

Lars Brozus & Stephan Roll

© 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor