Prime Minister David Cameron takes questions from students at Qatar University in Doha, 2011
© Prime Minister's Office
Prime Minister David Cameron takes questions from students at Qatar University in Doha, 2011
Last updated: February 24, 2014
The UK must leave the Mubarak days behind

"Whilst the UK’s leverage alone is minimal, a collective response would bear much greater weight."

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After the coup, the British government appeared to take genuine steps to review ties with Egypt. By the end of August the UK had officially suspended 49 export licenses for arms being sold to Egypt, cancelled its' participation in Operation Brightstar, placed under review wider security co-operation and programme funding, and adopted a strong stance on the military's involvement in politics.

Whilst William Hague had publicly stated a willingness to 'work with the people in authority', the use of force in clearing the Raba'a protests was directly condemned, and the British government was openly calling for an ‘inclusive political process’ which included the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since then political repression in Egypt has intensified, with violations of political and press freedoms utilising the worn pretext of national security and stability. However the UK’s stance has conversely weakened, and relations almost fully restored. Whilst there has been no official announcement on participation in Operation Brightstar for 2014, arms export licenses have been restored, language has been toned down to avoid mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood, and security cooperation re-framed in terms of supporting counter-terrorism efforts. Underlying the shift is the fact that the status quo in Egypt has cemented their position, the Muslim Brotherhood have been virtually eradicated within Egypt, and the regime has taken a bullish attitude towards countries whose stance is anything but unequivocally supportive.

"The British government's policy is quickly lapsing back into the Mubarak era stuporThe UK government fears that with minimal leverage to back up a potentially strong stance on domestic repression in Egypt, it risks breaking economic ties and political engagement, without which any leverage they may have could be rendered irrelevant. But with the idea of an ‘inclusive’ political process reduced to wishful thinking, the British government's policy is quickly lapsing back into the Mubarak era stupor.  

Attempts to frame support for Egypt's government by isolating counter-terrorism efforts are increasingly self-defeating since the 'national security' agenda has frequently been used as the basis for suppressing virtually any opposition to the regime. If the 'Arab Partnership' (the FCO's policy initiative to adapt its response to the Arab Spring), is to have credibility on Egypt, the British government needs to explore new approaches to the kind of prosperity/human rights conflict Egypt represents from a policy standpoint. That the UK has minimal leverage over Egypt's current regime should not be an excuse for normalizing ties and toning down rhetoric.

The Obama administration’s utter failure to utilise its own leverage should be a cautionary tale. Since the partial suspension to military assistance last year, Egypt's government has taken clear steps to neutralise any potential future attempts to wield the aid as leverage with an arms deal with Russia seemingly on the cards. But even if the deal is not signed, Egypt's government has effectively used the threat of a deal to pressure the US administration. This has been made possible by the US government’s failure to even threaten the possibility of a more substantial cut to the aid package; allowing Egypt’s policy-makers to calculate that they could successfully court arms from Russia with no repercussions for US military assistance. 

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What is to stop a similar situation occurring if the Egyptian government threatens to cancel arms deals with British companies as a consequence of their government's criticisms? The fact is Egypt’s regime has demonstrated its hostility to even fairly tame criticism from foreign governments. Under current circumstances, a worsening in bilateral ties would leave the British government stranded, and political engagement will be futile unless leverage is effectively exercised. With rampant levels of xenophobia in Egypt, concern for British nationals (particularly journalists) should be taken seriously, bearing in mind Egypt’s preparedness to play political games with foreign nationals as a bargaining chip with their governments. Whilst political engagement has had no significant fallout for British nationals thus far; that is no solid guarantee on which to base policy.

The British government needs to seriously engage with both the United States and European Union on potential collective efforts to maximise leverage over Egypt. Whilst the UK’s leverage alone is minimal, a collective response would bear much greater weight. Clout with international financial organisations, and expertise in institution building technical assistance should be explored as means of exerting pressure by at the very least suggesting repercussions for Egypt on these fronts. Even if there is no intention to actually cut such assistance, the Obama administration’s policy failure shows that it makes greater sense to play cards close to the chest, at least denying Egypt the comfort of taking for granted such assistance.

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