Egypt has significant leverage over international actors. Other countries need it to cooperate on shared goals, from establishing an anti-ISIS coalition and countering ‘irregular migration’, to promoting stability in Libya, Israel, Palestine and the wider MENA region. For many nations, Egypt is an important trade partner and purchaser of arms, and it commands large energy reserves. All of this makes international actors reluctant to criticise – and eager to support – Egypt’s stance on ‘terrorism’. Furthermore, although terror attacks in Egypt have primarily focused on domestic targets and appear to be driven largely by repression, there have been attacks in Egypt targeting tourism, foreign citizens and embassies, international civilian aircraft, Israeli forces and civilians, peacekeepers and international shipping – feeding international concerns over the threat from Egyptian groups. 

Even if there have been minor variations in US aid allocations to Egypt in the Obama and Trump eras,[58] international partners have overwhelmingly prioritised supporting the Sisi government to fight terrorism over promoting respect for human rights. That the insurgency in Sinai was becoming more of a threat for Israel likely discouraged the US and other international actors from condemning the government’s conduct. 

Political backing

Despite the fact that Sisi’s regime has fuelled armed rebellion in disastrous ways, he has made no bones about leveraging influence by portraying his regime as a bulwark against terrorism on the international stage. During a visit to the Oval Office in April 2017, Sisi told President Trump that, “You are standing very strong in counter terrorism field… You will find Egypt and myself always behind you in this – in bringing about an effective strategy in counter terrorism”. 

Western and non-Western governments alike have responded with glowing affirmations of support for the regime and its CT approach. US President Trump reportedly “praised the Egyptian leader as [a] ‘fantastic guy,’ declaring that his ‘tough approach’ had ‘gotten the terrorists out’” when the two met at the UN in 2016. Cairo had already been receiving $1.3 billion per year in US military aid under the Obama administration, so the regime is hopeful that Trump will “reinstate a practice known as cash-flow financing that the Obama administration cut in 2015, which allowed Egypt to buy military hardware on credit as much as a decade in advance”. 

As previous Saferworld research has argued, under the logic of the ‘war on terror’ there has been widespread failure by the international community to manage relations with ‘partners’ effectively, and in particular to challenge or change the behaviour of corrupt, abusive actors effectively. Neglected options include making support conditional, prioritising behaviour change within military assistance and working in greater solidarity with civil society. Recent decisions by the US government to reduce aid by $96 million and freeze a further $195 million due to the human rights situation in Egypt is an anomaly in the burgeoning ‘special relationship’ between the US and Egypt. These cuts, reportedly due to US objections to a controversial law restricting NGOs and to Egypt’s trade ties with Pyongyang, are perceived as largely symbolic and in line with wider US aid cuts in the region. Apart from this, military cooperation between the two countries remains unaffected, with US funds significantly bolstering Sisi’s approach. 

The UK government has taken a similar line, stating in September 2015 that “with growing instability in the region it [is] more important than ever that the UK cements the already strong ties with Egypt”. In August 2015 UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: “Whether British tourists in Tunisia, Egyptian workers in Libya or Egyptian armed forces in North Sinai, both of our nations have experienced evil terrorism inspired or directed by [ISIS]. We will stand together to ensure their ideology of hate is defeated”. 

In a move described by one commentator as a “fateful gift to Islamic State”, Fallon also wrote an article in a semi-official Egyptian newspaper in which he praised Sisi’s “vision of a more prosperous, more democratic society” and his “rejection of authoritarianism”. When Sisi visited Downing Street in November 2015, in the face of protests and condemnation by human rights groups, Fallon again endorsed the regime’s belligerent approach stating that: “The UK is committed to standing shoulder to shoulder with Egypt as we fight for a more secure future for the Middle East”. 

Although countless analysts have warned Western leaders of the dangers of mistakenly conflating the MB with terrorism, in an August 2017 article in an Egyptian newspaper, Alistair Burt, the UK Minister of State for International Development, argued that the Egyptian and UK governments “must destroy the artery that feeds terrorism”, linking this directly to the MB by asserting that throughout the British Government’s “observation of the Brotherhood's activities around the world, it became completely clear that this movement uses ambiguity to hide their extremist agenda in Egypt”. Peter Oborne suggests that Burt's remarks “are carefully prepared and should be seen as part of a new British strategy towards Egypt and the Arab world”.

Clearly, the UK-Egypt relationship is also underpinned not only by the need to cooperate over the stabilisation of Libya but also by significant business ties. According to the UK government: “As Egypt’s largest investor, Britain is helping to strengthen Egypt’s position against terrorism by supporting a more prosperous society”.

The current French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has visited Egypt eight times during three years of Sisi rule, but has not once publicly commented on the worsening human rights situations in Egypt.[59] Le Drian said on 8 June 2017 that he brought from President Macron “a message of support” for unspecified “reforms underway.”[60] 

Likewise Germany, having refused many times to invite Sisi to visit, finally rolled out the red carpet for him on 3 June 2015.[61] During her visit to Cairo in March 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "Egypt is in a very decisive phase economically”, and "pledged a total of some 500 million euros ($526 million) through 2018 in financial aid". Germany went on to sign an agreement with Egypt on curbing ‘illegal’ migration on 27 August 2017.[62]

Detention and mistreatment of foreign nationals: Omar Hammam and Giulio Regeni

Omar Hammam, an American born in New York to an Egyptian father and American mother, travelled to Egypt for the first time after the 2011 revolution. On his second visit in July 2014, Omar was detained at Cairo Airport by authorities and ordered to remain in Egypt and await permission to travel from the army, even though he did not hold Egyptian ID or official papers.

For the next several months, Omar tried to no avail to leave the country. Despite assurances from National Security officers, he was consistently prevented from leaving. When Omar received an anonymous phone call in February 2015 warning him that his life was at risk, what began as a holiday had become a nightmare. 

In the following days, National Security officers visited his family home in Cairo, took Omar and interrogated him at length. When he was released, he went to army headquarters seeking permission to travel. After months of waiting, on 12 March 2015, Omar was given authorisation, so he booked the next flight. But while waiting to board his flight, Omar disappeared. 

The US embassy had no answers for Omar’s family as to his whereabouts. After almost two months, unofficial sources confirmed that Omar was being held in the highest security prison in Egypt (the Scorpion Prison in Cairo). For the next 18 months, he was held in inhumane conditions, and reported numerous forms of ill treatment. 

National Security officers came for Omar’s father in July 2016, and he ended up joining his son in arbitrary detention. Four months later, in November 2016, after considerable pressure, Omar and his father were found innocent on charges of being members of a terrorist organisation. However, 14 other co-defendants in their case were handed prison or death sentences. No evidence was ever presented in their cases, and no rationale ever given for their arrests. 

During this ordeal, Omar and his father reported that the US Embassy offered little support. Even though a US citizen was kidnapped and was being held without charge in an Egyptian prison, no official rebuke of the Egyptian government was ever issued. Omar’s case is not unique. According to his parents, the US embassy believed that there were almost 20 American citizens in prison in Egypt in 2016. 

More troubling is the case of the Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni. Regeni was in Egypt researching a politically sensitive topic – a union of street vendors – when he disappeared in January 2016. When his body was found, it revealed that he had died an excruciating and slow death – his neck broken after he had suffered burns, lacerations, and the breaking of several of his bones. 

When pressed by the Italian government, the Egyptian authorities – to the highest level – repeatedly denied knowledge of Regeni’s abduction, torture and murder. Five ‘suspects’ in his disappearance, later proven innocent of the charges, were shot dead. Yet three former US government officials confirmed to the New York Times that “we had incontrovertible evidence of official Egyptian responsibility”.[63]  In September 2017, a lawyer who had investigated Regeni’s case was himself forcibly disappeared and then charged with “managing an illegal group, spreading false news … [and] cooperating with foreign organisations”.

Arms deals speak louder than human rights

Despite their rhetorical commitments to advance human rights, the MENA region is a very lucrative arms market for the US, UK and many EU countries. According to Amnesty, despite the indiscriminate force used in Sinai by Egyptian security forces and the media blackout in force: 

“EU states have signed off on transfers of heavy weapons and equipment purportedly to help Egypt’s fight against ‘terrorism’, despite a lack of transparency and human rights guarantees regarding their use”.

From 2006 to 2015, 58 per cent of total UK defence exports (based on orders and contracts signed) went to the Middle East. In 2015, UK defence exports to the Middle East made up over 60 per cent of the UK’s £7.7 billion defence export market. Sisi has managed to sign a special security agreement with Germany and has bought weapons, military jets, submarines and aircraft carriers from France, as well as doing defence deals with many other EU countries. 

In one deal with France announced in February 2015, Egypt purchased "24 Rafale fighter jets, a multi-mission naval frigate and related equipment. Egypt thus became the first international buyer for the Rafale jet, which for two decades has failed to find traction on the global market". Then in September 2015, Egypt ordered two Mistral helicopter carriers from France in a deal worth €950 million.  

After the Rabaa and Nahda massacres, the EU Council decided to "suspend export licenses to Egypt of any equipment which might be used for internal repression and to reassess export licenses of equipment covered by Common Position 2008/944/CFSP and review their security assistance with Egypt". At the same time, the council decided to continue its assistance because of concerns over the worsening economic situation in the country and its effects on the most marginalised people. 

Despite this ruling, 12 out of 28 EU member states "have flouted [this] suspension of arms transfers to Egypt, risking complicity in the wave of unlawful killings, forced disappearances and torture" documented by Amnesty and others. Since coming to power, Sisi has successfully added Russia, the UK and the Czech Republic to the list of 14 other major arms-producing countries that supply Egypt. 

On 19 September 2017 President Sisi, speaking at the UN General Assembly, called on international allies to “rectify misconstrued notions which have become an ideological pretext for terrorism” and join Egypt in its ”unrelenting battle to eradicate terrorism from its territory”. Photo: UN Photo/Cia Pak

On 19 September 2017 President Sisi, speaking at the UN General Assembly, called on international allies to “rectify misconstrued notions which have become an ideological pretext for terrorism” and join Egypt in its ”unrelenting battle to eradicate terrorism from its territory”. Photo: UN Photo/Cia Pak

Implications of international support

The escalation of repression, political polarisation and violence into a new crisis is unquestionably the most salient threat faced by international actors in the Egyptian theatre, and warrants a recalibration of international engagement in the country to exert diplomatic pressure and social solidarity in favour of constructive, peaceful change”

International actors engaging with Egypt have mostly steered clear of meaningfully challenging the regime because of the government’s significant leverage on a number of issues of international concern. However, backing for the current approach and behaviour of the Sisi regime does not provide any meaningful incentive for it to resolve any of the challenges over which it has influence – whether domestic terrorism, ‘illegal’ migration or the turbulent situation in Libya. 

The failure of the current CT strategy and escalation of the threat serves the regime’s interests as long as it leads to greater levels of international political and military support and legitimisation of its repressive tactics. Yet of course such international support is feeding into the state’s drive to crush internal dissent. This is causing deep instability and could ultimately lead to a more severe crisis down the road. 

Obviously, the leverage that Sisi exerts on international partners does not just flow one way. Yet too often international partners appear unwilling to risk perceived influence and economic gain. Recent Saferworld research has shown the pitfalls of siding with abusive elites in similar contexts – lessons that are rarely heeded and in the case of Egypt will likely be painfully ignored. The consequences of such engagement – and the human cost of any subsequent conflict - has been a recurring experience in multiple countries in the region. Bordering Libya, Sudan, Gaza and Israel, in an ever-changing region, if the current course of action by the Sisi regime holds, the potential for greater faultlines to open up in Egypt and the Sinai region is significant.

The escalation of repression, political polarisation and violence into a new crisis is unquestionably the most salient threat faced by international actors in the Egyptian theatre, and warrants a recalibration of international engagement in the country to exert diplomatic pressure and social solidarity in favour of constructive, peaceful change.

Header photo: In 2016, US President Donald Trump dubbed Egypt’s President Sisi a ‘fantastic guy’. Photo: White House/Shealah Craighead


58. For more details, see: The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (2017), ‘Special Briefing: developments in US-Egypt aid relationship’, 24 August

59. Le Drian previously held other positions in the French government and has visited Egypt in other roles, including his previous post as defence minister. For more, see: Stork J (2017), ‘France under Macron still indulges Egypt’s harsh repression’, Human Rights Watch, 26 June

60. Ibid

61. Dempsey J (2015), ‘Germany welcomes Egypt’s Sisi’, Carnegie Europe, 1 June

62. Daily News Egypt (2017), ‘Egypt, Germany sign cooperation agreement in solving illegal migration problem’, 27 August

63. Walsh D (2017), ‘Why was an Italian graduate student tortured and murdered in Egypt?’, New York Times, 15 August