by Quint Hoekstra. Originally published on 2013/09/06

To Western policymakers, the military coup d’état is a setback in Egypt’s transition to democracy, a process that started in early 2011 with the ousting of then President Hosni Mubarak. In a modern institutionalized democracy the army is not supposed to topple elected leaders, even if the streets are filled with protestors demanding the President’s resignation. But Egypt is not a fully functioning democracy. At best, it is a fragile state ridden with deep fault lines centred on religious denominations, tribalism (in rural areas) and the roles of Islam in public life. In such a place, Western notions of democracy fail to grasp how a country like Egypt can and should function. From a literal interpretation General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s putsch was indeed a democratic move as it enjoyed wide popular support. It was not, however, in line with the notion of the rule of law. Suspending the constitution and the arbitrary arrest of politicians goes directly against this principle.

Support for the sake of democracy?

It may therefore seem somewhat odd to see Ashton implicitly supporting the coup. Indeed, she struck a constructive and supportive, not critical, tone on her first visit to Cairo on July 18. Beating Europe’s national political leaders to the scene, she said she “supported the people of Egypt”, called the country “strong” and “very important”, offered her help and support and wished it “success”. At first glance this does not reflect the normative power the EU is known to espouse, especially when it comes to its neighbourhood policy. The EU used to consider it to be in its enlightened interest to see the Arab states democratize. What is good for them was also seen as good for the EU. After all, democratization reduces the likelihood of armed conflict and tends to increase trade. So why did the EU support General Sisi’s illiberal move? The answer is that Catherine Ashton wants to position herself as a mediator between the two warring parties. With the support of the Council of the EU she decided to support the coup and call for a continuation of Egypt’s democratic transition. This pragmatic stance is particularly helpful when it comes to keeping the dialogue open to new power players in this strategically important country. Realizing the coup could not be undone and the strategy was chosen to accept the status quo in order to retain the little influence the EU still has in the region. Wielding its soft power, the EU has since tried to broker a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. On her second visit on July 30th , the baroness Ashton spoke to Mr Morsy, being the first person to do so since he was captured. This unique opportunity proved to some the importance of the EU’s role in mediating abroad. And Ashton is indeed right in thinking that presence increases influence, a valuable lesson picked up from the frequent trips of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Others, however, argue that the High Representative was merely sent to Cairo by cautious European leaders to test the waters for them.

Contradictory position

During her first visit, Catherine Ashton called for an inclusive political process – one that includes the Muslim Brotherhood. Deliberately excluding the party would indeed be a bad idea, especially considering that it has the support of up to six million Egyptians. But this call is unrealistic as the Brotherhood has already refused a power-sharing deal. Meanwhile, the army has never had warm feelings towards the Islamist party. It fought the Brotherhood for decades during the Mubarak era and did not seem to be quite at ease when the Islamists obtained political office last year. Ashton asked for the release of the former President and leader of the Brotherhood, Mr Morsy. Yet this clashes with her demand to see an end to the on-going street violence. Morsy has repeatedly shown to have the gift of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. For example, shortly before he was removed from office Morsy held a televised speech emphasizing the legitimacy of his Presidency. In a bitter tone (he said he would fight until his death) he rambled for over two hours and refused to meet the protestor’s demands. With millions out on the streets demanding his resignation at the time, his speech reflected his poor sense of timing. The army therefore suspects his release would lead to more such inflammatory speeches, carrying the risk of aggravating Egypt’s divisions and sparking yet more violence. Rather than freeing Morsy, on July 26th the army chose to indict him for murder and spying for Hamas. Whilst Mr Morsy’s arrest is certainly not praiseworthy, the baroness Ashton needs to consider the dire situation Egypt is currently in. Yet, for as long as the contents of her second visit ( including her private talk with Mr Morsy) remain undisclosed the world can only wait and see what happens next.

Any real European influence?

Despite her efforts, the baroness’ visits are unlikely to leave a lasting impression on the Egyptian people. The unfolding crisis is largely an internal affair which the EU can hardly influence. Even the United States, with their 1.3 billion dollar military aid to Egypt, is struggling to use its leverage over the political scene. Threatening with trade sanctions should Egypt stray off the road to democracy would be futile and inappropriate as it would merely prompt Egypt to raise Suez Canal fares. The Egyptians view the situation as ‘their’ revolution and are highly sceptical of foreign meddling. It is possible to tell from my personal experience that non-Egyptians are not welcome during demonstrations and are quickly accused of being spies. Bearing this in mind, Catherine Ashton needs to walk a fine line between retaining some influence to increase regional stability without going all-out risking a backlash from populist media commentators branding her as an imperialist. Her attempt at mediating fits well with the image of normative power the EU likes to portray. Ashton will step down from office at the end of her term in 2014, making this her big opportunity to show what the EU can do on the world stage. If she is to succeed, she must unleash all her diplomatic skills and try to broker a deal in a hostile and complex environment. The risk of failure is considerable, but so are the benefits of succeeding.

Quint Hoekstra is a student of International Relations at Leiden University and lived in Cairo, Egypt during June and July 2013.

Disclaimer: The articles published on the EST website reflect the authors’ own view. The EST is a neutral student foundation aiming to provide a platform for students to comment and debate policies related to the European Union.

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