The torture killing of an Italian student in Cairo has prompted the European Parliament to cut military lead to Egypt. But the European leaders may not be able to make the break.
CAIRO — Last Thursday, 558 members of the European Parliament voted in favor of a non-binding resolution recommending the suspension of military aid and assistance to Egypt. The move comes in the wake of of the "abduction, savage torture and killing" of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni in Cairo.
The European Parliament emphasized Regeni's murder "is not an isolated accident," but took place in the context of an increase in unlawful practices in Egypt — reports of torture, forced disappearance and the deaths of detainees in police custody.
Regeni's body was found in February by the side of a road on the outskirts of Cairo, showing signs of torture, including cigarette burns, bruises, cuts and multiple stab wounds. The 28-year-old went missing on January 25 — the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution — after he was reportedly headed to the downtown Cairo district of Bab al-Louq, near Tahrir Square.
Schams El-Ghoneimi, foreign policy adviser at the European Parliament on the Middle East, said that while the Strasbourg-based legislature doesn't directly dictate the EU's foreign policy, it does have a number of powerful tools to influence it, as a direct reflection of public opinion from across 28 member states.
"When the elected representatives of 500 million citizens overwhelmingly vote in favor of a friendly but frank warning to Egypt's authorities on human rights, it means Europeans want this," he tells Mada Masr.
Ghoneimi cites meetings between the Secretary Generals of the Arab League, both Amr Moussa and Nabil al-Arabi, and members of the EU Parliament — specifically the Foreign Affairs Committee Members. "They came and answered tough questions — or tried to avoid them," he says.
Ghoneimi also believes that since the parliament's legislative powers sets the rules for the EU common market, it impacts the Arab World. He explains that, for example, companies like Google and Microsoft must comply with EU law to do business in the member states.
"The important U.S-EU Free Trade Agreement (TTIP) needs to be accepted by the European Parliament first," he explains. "Likewise if Egypt wants to have any important trade agreement with the EU."
It is ultimately up to the member states to implement the resolution, but Ghoneimi notes that "the pressure is there, their governments depend on public opinion to remain in power."
This is not the first motion proposed by the European Parliament against the Egyptian government. On July 17, 2015, it urged member states to impose a wide ban on the export of surveillance technology to Egypt on the grounds that it could be used to spy on citizens. The ban would be in compliance with the Wassenaar Agreement on the export of military aid and security equipment that could be used to breach basic rights, the resolution added.
Kristina Kausch, non-resident associate at Carnegie Europe, with a focus on Europe's relations with the Middle East and North Africa, recognizes the weight of the resolution but says that it is unlikely to be followed up in a concrete manner. Kausch says that the EU Parliament acts as a moral compass for the member states, putting out strong statements for them. "However, I don't think the suspension of military aid that is recommended will be adopted," she tells Mada Masr. "Member states will choose to set priorities differently. They will choose to prioritize Egypt's security role in the region over making strong statements."
Still, Kausch believes the resolution is a step in the right direction, adding that the language is much stronger than it used to be in the past and that it cites other human rights abuses, and not just the Regeni case.
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File photo of Italian student Giulio Regeni
The European Parliament referred to thousands of "prisoners of conscience" jailed for exercising their basic rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. It also criticized travel bans issued against many human rights defenders, including Hossam Bahgat, Gamal Eid, Hossam Eddin Ali, Esraa Abdel Fattah, Omar Hazek and Mohamed Lotfi.The motion cited deteriorating media and press freedoms, a crackdown on civil society organizations, mass death sentences issued for supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, torture in police detention and prisons, among other practices.
Kausch says the resolution is also something human rights lobbyists can use to try and press for governments abroad to put pressure on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. "This is one step in an ongoing process; little by little international opinion on Sisi is changing," she says.
She juxtaposes the current view of Sisi to when he was elected president by an overwhelming majority, when "everyone in Egypt and abroad were glad that the Muslim Brotherhood were gone ... That sense in the international community is evaporating and he is starting to be seen as just another oppressor."
A delegation from the Egyptian Parliament is gearing up for a trip to Brussels to meet with the European Parliament in light of the recent resolution. "I'm sure the Sisi government is annoyed by it," she says. "But every time a statement like this is issued, these mechanisms unfold but don't mean much."