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Dear President von der Leyen,
Dear High Representative Borrell,
Dear Commissioner Várhelyi,
Dear Permanent Representatives of the governments of the member states to the European Union,

We are writing with great concern about ongoing discussions to upgrade the EU’s partnership with Egypt to a “strategic” level and to intensify security and migration cooperation with the Egyptian government. The timing of these announcements is all the more concerning, as they are expected to be formulated shortly after the upcoming presidential election in Egypt, which will be neither free nor fair and held in a climate of increased repression by the authorities.

We have repeatedly written to the European Union since al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup, highlighting his government’s brutal, pervasive crackdown in the country and complete disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law.

Our research has exposed how the 2013 repression of largely peaceful protesters in Rab’a Square, when security forces killed at least 817 people in a single day and arbitrarily arrested thousands more, likely amounts to crimes against humanity. We have made the same determination concerning the torture epidemic in the country, which remains pervasive, and we have repeatedly exposed how Egypt’s security forces have committed war crimes in the military campaign in North Sinai.

Authorities continue to brutally suppress peaceful expressions of dissent. The 2013 anti-protest law has been used as a blanket ban on protests, resulting in tens of thousands being detained or prosecuted. Among them are prominent government critics, such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mohamed (Oxygen) Ibrahim, Salah Soltan, Hoda Abdel Moneim, and Nermin Hussein. Around 1700 political prisoners have been released since the presidential pardon committee was reactivated in April 2022; but around 4500 have been arrested or re-arrested over the same period of time, and those released are often hit by travel bans and assets freezes, showing how the government has no genuine intention to open up civic space.

We have also documented serious abuses by the Egyptian authorities against asylum seekers and refugees, including arbitrary detention and physical abuse, detention of children, unlawful deportation of Eritrean asylum seekers amounting to refoulement, and failure to protect vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers from pervasive sexual violence. Egypt has also blocked people fleeing Sudan’s conflict from entering without visas, creating life-threatening delays in access to asylum.

Despite that, repeated appeals by NGOs and by the European Parliament for EU action to address the human rights crisis in Egypt have fallen to deaf ears. Instead of adopting targeted sanctions, halting military cooperation, taking action at the UN Human Rights Council, and calling out the serious abuses by the Egyptian government, European governments and institutions have decided to reward Egypt’s leaders by strengthening their ties with them. President al-Sisi receives red-carpet treatment and even awards by his western allies, who continue to provide military, economic and political support to his abusive government.

Structural impunity and lack of internal and external scrutiny has contributed to pervasive corruption and mismanagement by the Egyptian government, which in turn has led to a dire economic situation. The Egyptian government completely shrouds from public view the financial dealings of massively expanded businesses owned by military agencies, which mainly produce civilian goods, making them ripe for corruption and undermining civilian oversight of the funding for Egypt’s military. The government has also used repressive measures to protect the military’s economic power.

As a result, not only the civil and political rights of millions of Egyptians, but also their economic rights, have been severely undermined for years. Official poverty increased from 28 to 33 percent between 2015 and 2018; although it slightly decreased in 2019, analysts say it has significantly rose again since the pandemic, but there have been no official surveys since then. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that approximate one-third of the population is “vulnerable to poverty.” The government has repeatedly relied on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail it out since al-Sisi came to power. In January 2023, the IMF approved a US$3 billion loan agreement with Egypt, the fourth since 2016. The agreement includes some efforts to address deep-seated structural problems such as the opaque role of the military in the economy and inadequate social protection. But other provisions, such as austerity and the sale of state assets, risk harming rights.

The European Union should ensure that any recalibration of its partnership with Egypt and related macro-financial assistance provide an opportunity to improve the civil, political, and economic rights of the Egyptian people; but its impact will only be long-lasting if linked to structural progress and reforms to address the government’s abuses and oppression, that have strangled people’s rights as much as the country’s economy.

In particular, we encourage the EU to make it crystal clear, in any upcoming statement on the matter, that enhanced cooperation and the disbursement of funds are conditioned on clear steps to be undertaken by the government, including:

  1. Ending arbitrary arrests and abusive use of pretrial detention and releasing thousands of Egyptians held merely for peaceful exercise of their rights to free expression, association, or assembly;
  2. Halting widespread and systematic torture and ill-treatment of detainees in prisons and detention facilities;
  3. Ensuring accountability for ongoing and past military and police abuses, including war crimes in North Sinai.
  4. Drastically revising or repealing legislation used to curtain basic freedoms in recent years, including the 2015 counterterrorism law, the Terrorist Entities Law, the 2018 cybercrimes law and the 2013 protest law. Repealing all legislative amendments adopted following al-Sisi’s 2021 decision to lift the state of emergency, including the law allowing for prosecuting civilians before military courts for a broad range of politically motivated offenses.
  5. Respecting the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, including by protecting them from violence and other abuses, ensuring lawful access to asylum, upholding the principle of non-refoulement, and following due process in any immigration-related arrests, detention, or other proceedings.

EU member states should also urge the IMF to ensure that Egypt follows through on stipulations in its current loan agreement to address deep-seated structural problems such as the opaque role of the military in the economy and inadequate social protection. 

The EU and EU member states should also condition any military cooperation with Egypt to serious and concrete steps to end impunity for the grave abuses committed by the Egyptian security forces.

Any bilateral cooperation on migration should be preceded by thorough due diligence to ensure that no EU funding reaches authorities responsible for abuses against migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers. The EU should consider that strengthening Egypt’s border enforcement risks preventing Egyptians or others who are fleeing persecution, torture or other serious harm from being able to seek international protection. The EU should at the outset prioritize serious actions to press Egypt to ensure it puts an end to the pervasive practice of torture and other forms of persecution, and ensure that those fleeing violations have access to international protection.

Unless further cooperation is publicly conditioned on urgently needed structural reforms, EU support will only serve to further embolden the abusive and corrupt military elite in power in Egypt, strengthening its sense of impunity and paving the way for further abuses and economic mismanagement, to which the EU risks being complicit.

We hope the EU will firmly take this approach and make it clear in any upcoming public communication on the matter.

We stand ready to discuss these issues with you any time.

Yours sincerely,

Philippe Dam                                   Lama Fakih

EU Advocacy Director                   Director, Middle East & North Africa Division

Human Rights Watch                    Human Rights Watch

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