Egypt can’t blame everyone else

H.A. Hellyer

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Cairo has not had the best of weeks. It was supposed to be a showcase week – Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had his official visit scheduled to the UK. It was supposed to be a reconfirmation of the international recognition already provided to Sisi’s political dispensation. Instead, the week began with political controversy, continued with diplomatic catastrophes, and ended with media cataclysms on plane crashes and civil rights activists. Cairo isn’t fazed, though – because it is everyone else’s fault. Quite.

Let’s put a few things into context. When Sisi decided to go to London, he wasn’t going to a hostile capital to defend Egypt’s reputation or engage in aggressive diplomacy. That’s wholly unnecessary. London stood to gain exceedingly little from the visit – it was looking to strengthen relations with Cairo, on issues of what it saw as mutual interest. During the visit itself, Downing Street minimized the amount of critical engagement Sisi would get in public – whether from Prime Minister Cameron himself, the media, or other parts of British society. If Cameron had wanted to give Sisi a hard time, it would have been very easy to do so. He didn’t. On the contrary.

Cairo, if it stays true to fashion, will response to criticisms of the investigation with indignation and outrage, and decry the negative portrayal of Egypt in the global media establishment.

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Egypt’s human rights record over the past two years has been the subject of very many articles and conferences in Britain’s capital indeed, and a number of Egypt’s pro-Mursi opposition reside in London. If London had wanted to give Cairo a hard time, it would have been rather easy to do so.

That hasn’t stopped large swathes of Egypt’s media circuit from attacking the UK, and Egypt’s foreign ministry from expressing outrage as one of Britain’s top journalists points out:

‘"They're jumping to conclusions," Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry angrily declared when I reached him by telephone shortly after the UK prime minister's office announced a suspension of all flights in and out of the popular tourist enclave on the southern edge of the Sinai which is meant to be highly protected.’

But is the anger justified? Did Britain do something that Egypt itself wouldn’t? Was London somehow unusual in this regard?

That seems to have been the implication by Cairo – but it is an implication that was difficult to sustain. Russia went even further than the UK, after initialling expressing some displeasure – it suspended flights to all of Egypt. Moscow can hardly be accused of being also anti-Cairo, surely…

Blame game

As for jumping to conclusions – London very well may have done so. But can they be blamed for that with such gusto? The explosion that brought down the Russian airliner took place more than a week ago – yet, it took Cairo a week to schedule a press conference by the Civil Aviation Authority to brief the international press. When it did happen, the state’s representative declared he had ‘limited time’ to engage with the press, and proceeded to take only a few questions. That is certainly not going to endear the press to report favourably on Cairo.

Yesterday, Cairo proceeded to move forward in another direction that is hardly going to result in much positive reportage and analysis about Egypt. One of Egypt’s most renowned civil rights activists, turned investigative reporter, Hossam Bahgat, was summoned to military intelligence for interrogation. After around eight hours of interrogation, Bahgat was then referred to the military prosecutor – apparently on the charge of ‘publishing false and inaccurate information that harms national security.’

Let’s break that down. Bahgat, a civilian, is being summoned for interrogation by the military. That’s not going to go down well – he’s not a serving military officer, so one might expect he would be referred to a civilian court. He’s a journalist, and the publication of news may not make anyone happy. But if the publication of his story (published on October 13) on a set of military trials had been so egregious in terms of ‘national security’, then it wouldn’t have taken more than three weeks for the state to respond.

What’s the likely response going to be, just to this? Entirely predictable: the international media will publish a slew of negative stories about Egypt. Diplomats from countries friendly to Egypt will declare their concern – because Bahgat has a long track record of speaking truth to power, under a variety of different political dispensations. He was critical of all administrations – Mubarak, of the military council that replaced him, of Mohammad Mursi, of the interim President Adli Mansour and of Sisi’s presidency.

The truth is – Bahgat does indeed warrant an investigation, as do so many civil rights activists in Egypt; an investigation by awards committees. These figures deserve recognition of praise and commendations – not to be treated as common criminals.

But then, there is, alas, likely to be another very predictable counter-response. Cairo, if it stays true to fashion, will response to criticisms of the investigation with indignation and outrage, and decry the negative portrayal of Egypt in the global media establishment.

But it isn’t the international community that waited for a week to have the civil aviation authority brief the world’s press; that was Cairo’s decision. It wasn’t the international community that summoned a world-renowned rights defender and journalist to military intelligence’s headquarters; that was Cairo’s decision. At some point, Cairo is going to have to ask where blame really does lie.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is Senior nonresident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in DC, and Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Before joining the Council, he was appointed nonresident Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in DC, and Research Associate at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. During his tenure at the University of Warwick (UK) as Fellow & then Senior Research Fellow, Dr Hellyer was appointed as Deputy Convenor of the UK Government's Taskforce for the 2005 London bombings, and served as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's (FCO) first ESRC Fellow as part of the "Islam & Counter-Terrorism" teams with FCO security clearance, as a non-civil servant.

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