CAIRO, February 19 (Shahira Amin for RIA Novosti) – Even though European leaders have been divided over the policy the EU should adopt toward Egypt after free elections brought an Islamist party to power, the EU Council has pledged the union’s continued support for economic growth in countries that have weathered the Arab Spring.
EU heads of state met in Brussels earlier this month to coordinate stances and adopt a unified position on "support for the Arab Spring countries." After two days of deliberations, focusing mainly on the EU budget for the next six years, the EU Council released a statement saying: "EU support is crucial to the promotion of democratic institutions in the countries undergoing transition…EU support is more urgent than ever to help transitions move in the right direction."
With substantial geopolitical interests in the region, the EU had decided there was too much at stake for Europe to turn its back on its southern neighbors.
"While some European countries encourage the integration of Islamists into the political process and seek to engage them, others are deeply suspicious of the Islamist political agenda and have been reluctant to extend aid to the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia. But if the democratic transition in Egypt fails, it will fail in the other Arab Spring countries, too," an EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told a group of journalists from the Arab Spring countries on a recent visit to Brussels. "An economic collapse would imply failure of the political transition."
His statements contradicted remarks made two months earlier by EU Parliament President Martin Schultz, who had suggested that Europe hold back on commitments made to Egypt following President Mohamed Morsi's decision to seize legislative and judicial powers.
"The only thing that such a regime understands is economic pressure. Europe should consider with all seriousness the appetite this man has for power," Schultz said back then.
Grappling with its own economic crisis, Europe has adopted a wait-and-see approach, temporarily freezing the delivery of a €5 billion financial package (€90 million of which are earmarked for socio-economic reform measures) it pledged to Egypt last November.
Meanwhile, a series of high-level visits to Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's ouster (including visits by High Representative Catherine Ashton, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Commission President Herman Van Rompuy) attest to the EU’s political commitment to engage with the new government in Egypt in a bid to coax it to stay the course of democratic reform.
The EU is Egypt's largest trading partner and biggest investor. Despite the significant deterioration in security, the political instability and the social unrest in Egypt following the revolution, EU companies have brought foreign direct investment inflows worth $9.5 billion to Egypt in 2011 and 2012 (up $3.4 billion from the previous year).
The EU has also provided €449 million in aid for Egypt from 2011 to 2013.
When President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011 after an 18-day-long uprising, expectations of the post-revolution era were high in Egypt. Many of the activists at the center of the mass protests believed that the transition from a military dictatorship to democratic rule would be smooth and swift. But two years on, hopes for the "secular, democratic state" have all but faded. Since the second anniversary of the revolution, 63 people have been killed and scores wounded in violent clashes nationwide, with riot police using water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to quell anti-government protests.
Burgeoning tensions between Morsi's Islamist supporters and secularist forces, continued police brutality, a lack of military accountability and restrictions imposed on civil society organizations are some of the pressing challenges cited by EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidi during a recent visit to Cairo.
The EU’s subdued reaction to the recent violence has provoked the ire of critics, who argue that “a more forceful approach” is needed to encourage good governance and greater political reforms. “The EU must prove that it has learned from past mistakes. It should leverage its aid to Egypt to apply more consistent pressure on the government to promote human rights and stronger democratic institutions,” said rights activist Hisham Qassem. “It needs to show Egyptians that it is siding with the people, not the government.”
Shahira Amin is an Egyptian journalist, the former deputy head of Egyptian state-owned Nile TV and one of its senior anchors.