Strenghtening Europe’s Role in Egypt

Limited as the EU’s influence may be, creating incentives—such as the ‘more for more’ approach—would offer a series of benchmarks and principles for the Egyptian roadmap, especially in the field of constitution and institution building. On the other hand, maintaining business as usual risks undermining the EU’s credibility.

Since the early days of the Egyptian uprising, the domestic scene has been fluid, featuring a conflicted and cooperative interplay between three, internally heterogeneous groups. Since Spring 2011, two of these groups— the military and the Muslim Brotherhood—have expressed a ‘winner takes it all’ approach. The third group, the liberal or revolutionary camp, is in principle committed to pluralism. But in view of its position as a minority actor, it has pursued its agenda in alliance with one or the other majority group, both of which have espoused undemocratic practices.

Be it out of ideology or sheer interest, neither the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) nor the military has demonstrated a commitment to the democratic process. The MB’s year in power may be insufficient for anyone to safely conclude that its rule would have transformed Egypt into a theocratic state. But that year in power, and particularly November 2012-July 2013, suggests that the MB had espoused a majoritarian understanding of the democratic process, assuming that electoral victory legitimized its attempt to monopolize the state and determine unilaterally its constitution and policies, without meaningfully engaging with political minorities.

Meanwhile, the military never rescinded its grip on state (and economic) power, which had been largely safeguarded by the MB in what had been a tacit alliance between the two up until President Muhammad Morsi’s ouster. In view of the mass mobilization against the MB in July, the military currently feels legitimized to pursue its own ‘winner takes it all’ strategy by attempting to wipe out the MB. To that end, the military is resurrecting the age-old narrative linking the Muslim Brotherhood to international terrorism and portraying it as a major national security threat. While the military has committed to return to the barracks in the next six to nine months, it views itself as the guardian of the state, with the right and duty to step in and out of politics as need may be and steer the transition process behind the scenes.

Liberals, still depressingly disorganized, have played the minority game, switching alliances between the MB and the military. They turned against the former when they concluded that it was bent on controlling the state. What also gives the liberals leverage is the support of large part of public opinion for their claims and their capacity to mobilize people: they are a veto player. The conviction of the liberals who still support the coup is that they can steer the military-led process towards a democratic outcome. For them the outcome would have been undemocratic in both form and substance had the MB been allowed to rule. This may be an illusion, as it is difficult to see the interim government that was formed in July as anything but a military-led cabinet with a civilian façade. At the same time, the military desperately needs civilian actors—the liberal crowd—to justify its rule in the eyes of the public. Whether liberals inside and outside the regime will successfully steer an undemocratic process into a democratic outcome is anyone’s guess. Signals, namely the new draft constitution, are not encouraging.

In observing and reacting to this complex dynamic, the European hunch is that a democratic—let alone peaceful—outcome is unlikely to blossom from an undemocratic process marked by repression and violence. This assumption underpinned European Union Special Representative Leon Gros’ heroic but perhaps belated reconciliation effort in the summer. That effort has failed. Neither side, and particularly the military, seems interested in reconciliation. Their calculation appears to be that violent repression holds the double promise of weakening the MB (by eliminating its leadership and casting the organization in a state of disarray) and inciting a manageable level of Brotherhood violent backlash that would raise the military’s domestic and above all international support (i.e. triggering a ‘we told you so’ effect). Mediating reconciliation, while preferable to managing conflict, does not seem to be a viable option now.

The alternative is to engage in the Egyptian transition on its own terms: engaging with the military-led roadmap. The roadmap is essentially a timeline, bereft of substance. Is it reasonable to expect a constitution that marks a meaningful improvement from its 1971 and 2012 precedents to be drawn up in a few months? The roadmap tells us when a constitution should be drawn up by and when elections should be held. But it is silent on the actual content of how these defining political acts would take place and what the rules of the game would be. If Europe engages with the military-led transition, then it must add meat to the roadmap’s skeleton. Chief among such efforts must be the institutionalizing of principles and benchmarks, such as a constitution that reduces the prospects for what is currently an undemocratic process.

How can Europe achieve this? The EU flirted momentarily with the idea of negative conditionality: punishing the Egyptian regime by withdrawing the benefits already delivered to it. Talk of suspending the association agreement was aired immediately after the crackdown. The idea of sanctioning Egypt was rather rapidly dismissed. (The association agreement was negotiated and signed with former President Hosni Mubarak regime, and the current regime is, for all extents and purposes, a continuation of his rule.) Sanctions would risk alienating Egypt in its current hyper-nationalistic mood and would run counter to European trade interests— a stark contrast with any engagement strategy. However, in light of the current crackdown, maintaining business as usual risks undermining the EU’s credibility: the barking dog that never bites.

The compromise consensus is that of withholding the additional benefits promised to post-2011 Egypt in the context of the ‘more for more’ revision of the European Neighborhood Policy. Concretely, we are talking about withholding an additional €800 million, and the eventual withholding of the next financial package covering 2014-2017 (approximately €900 million for the three year period).

Cynics are quick to point out the irrelevance of EU assistance when compared to the $1.3 billion of US military assistance, let alone the $12 billion Saudi-Emirati-Kuwaiti aid package. But numbers do not amount to the full picture. No less important are the quality of assistance, its actual implementation (if possible in coordination with the U.S. to strengthen the leverage of both actors) as well as its political significance. Beyond political rhetoric, relations with Europe may be valued at a time in which American credibility is dismally low among all Egyptian groups. Plus the Egyptian military and business elites may not want to put all their eggs in the Saudi/Emirati/Kuwaiti basket.

Limited as the EU’s influence may be, creating incentives—such as the ‘more for more’ approach—would offer a series of benchmarks and principles for the Egyptian roadmap, especially in the field of constitution and institution building. Through its conditional engagement and standard-setting role the EU can aspire to strengthen the bargaining hand of liberals in and out of the cabinet, as well as induce them to espouse the need for broader political participation, including reconciliation with the MB.

Nathalie Tocci is deputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome.