When Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power in 2013, western powers did not know how to react. They were instinctively suspicious of Morsi, an Islamist politician, and his failure to act in a pluralistic manner in government did not ease these concerns. Yet the takeover was clearly an undemocratic power-grab. A presidential election followed in 2014, and the former military head and mastermind of the coup, General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi, was elected. While Egypt’s military-backed government hoped that this election would give it the international legitimacy it craved, this has been slow to come. Before and after his election, Sisi, too, has acted in an undemocratic way, persecuting members of the Muslim Brotherhood (an organisation that has now been banned) and arresting journalists – including three Al-Jazeera journalists who have received significant international attention, as well as the secular activists behind the original revolution in 2011. Dissent from all sides is being quashed.
There is no doubt that this has damaged Egypt’s international standing; there have been condemnations from European countries, and the US withheld some of its military aid after a crackdown on a protest by Morsi supporters left 1,400 dead. Some analysts predicted that Egypt would turn instead to backers in the Gulf. After his election in May 2014, Sisi visited Russia in a move that was widely seen as a snub to the US.
But despite ongoing human rights abuses in Egypt, it appears that the country and its leader may be undergoing rehabilitation on the international stage. This week, Sisi made his first European trip as leader. He has visited France and Italy on a four-day tour, meeting heads of state in both countries, including the Pope – the first time a leader of Egypt has done so for eight years. The trip was broadly aimed at coordinating a response to fighting between government-backed troops and militias in Libya, as well as at boosting economic ties. Egypt and France both argue that the situation in Libya – where nationalist and Islamist militias are fighting it out as the weak elected government cowers – should be getting as much international attention as ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In addition to these visits, Sisi went to America earlier this year. The US has promised to restore military aid to Egypt. Calls to release Morsi – who faces the death sentence – and other Islamist figures are quieter now.
This softening of relations with the West does not reflect any improvement in the human rights situation at home. Just this week, an Egyptian court handed out death sentences to 188 defendants – mostly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. They were sentenced over their alleged involvement in the storming of a police station in Kerdasa town when 11 policemen were killed. Human Rights Watch has pointed out that although serious crimes were clearly committed at Kerdasa, mass trials give no space for a fair hearing: “Mass death sentences are fast losing Egypt’s judiciary whatever reputation for independence it once had,” it reports. In March, more than 500 Morsi supporters were sentenced to death on charges of attacking police stations south of Cairo.
But Western powers are quiet in their criticism of Egypt because of the strategic importance of the country as an ally in the Middle East. This is the reason that the US was reluctant to label Sisi’s takeover in 2013 a coup; to do so would have triggered an automatic suspension of military support, which it did not want to be bound to because of a shared security agenda. This shared agenda is an increasingly high priority, given the threat of ISIS in the region (Egypt’s deadliest militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed allegiance to the organisation earlier this month).
State visits in and of themselves are not always of huge significance; what is important is the message they send out. In the case of Sisi’s trip to Italy and France, the message is that his legitimacy as president has been accepted and that Egypt will continue to be an important “strategic partner” (in the words of the Italian prime minister) despite the ongoing domestic crackdown.
This type of realpolitik is nothing new; it characterises Western relations with Saudi Arabia and with Egypt throughout the Mubarak era. When Sisi’s regime came into power in Egypt many said it was a return to business as usual; it seems that is the case in terms of the country’s international relationships too.