The EU should use its soft power to remind the Egyptian government of its obligations and that it seeks to maintain good relations, but only if it has a responsible partner
The EU’s High Representative, Catherine Ashton, was visiting Cairo when, during the funeral service for four Egyptian Christians who were recently killed, violence broke out once again between Coptic Christians and Muslims around St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, in the Abbasiyya quarter. Two people died and some 80 were wounded.
Since the beginning of the so-called Arab spring and the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, confrontations between the two religious communities have been on the rise.
In mid-March this year, the European Parliament issued a joint motion for a resolution on the situation in Egypt, which contained, among other things, the following statements: “[the Parliament] Expresses its concern over the restrictions on freedom of belief, conscience and religion; […] believes that efforts should be made to reverse the tide of Christian emigration from Egypt, which not only threatens the continued existence of one of Egypt’s oldest communities, but also damages the Egyptian economy, with trained professionals leaving the country”.
The resolution preceded the release of a statement in September 2012 by President Mohammed Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, who said that Egypt “will not negotiate the welcoming of Egyptian Copts by some European countries […], because it is a pure internal matter”. In other words, Egypt will not allow any European countries to give asylum to persecuted Copts.
The idea that the Coptic issue is an internal Egyptian affair is nothing new. In January 2011, Al-Azhar university in Cairo cancelled discussions with the Vatican after Pope Benedict XVI urged Christian communities to be strong in the face of “a strategy of violence that has Christians as a target” after a New Year’s bombing outside a church in Alexandria that left 23 dead people. At the time the Egyptian government summoned its Ambassador to the Vatican due to its “unacceptable interference”.
After the events of April 7th, both Coptic Pope Tawadros II and President Morsi, called for calm for the nation’s sake. High Representative Ashton expressed her concern “about the violent incidents at the Abbasiyya Church” and contacted President Morsi, “strongly urging restraint and for security forces to control the situation”.
The US Ambassador to Egypt, Ann Patterson, conveyed her “deep condolences to the friends and families of the Egyptians – both Christian and Muslims – who were killed or injured in recent violence in Al Khousous and Abasiyya” and welcomed “ President Morsi’s promise to conduct a full and transparent investigation.”
Coptic groups outside Egypt are demanding to know the truth. Ashraf Ramelah, president of the organisation Voice of the Copts, requested that Europe and the United States attach conditions to taxpayers’ funds promised to Egypt, by demanding that evidence must exist that the government demonstrates its respect for the equal rights of all Egyptians under the law.
The online newspaper Al-Ahram reported that Catherine Ashton “expressed appreciation of the regional role undertaken by Cairo under President Morsi”, with reference to the successful mediation of Egypt in ending the conflict between Hamas and Israel, but insisted that this is not sufficient in lessening Europe’s other concerns.
On April 6th, the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat published an op-ed by the liberal intellectual Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed where he clearly and bravely stated that “the US will be content if Egypt continues to co-operate on regional issues and distances itself from the Iranian adventures, despite Cairo-Tehran rapprochement”, but he also stressed that Morsi’s government “is heading towards totalitarianism” and that the Muslim Brotherhood is “not always in line with the impression that they want to put forward”.
Nevertheless Mr. Morsi needs Western financial support and the West needs the help of Egypt, as an influential state in the Middle East. Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims, want freedom, but after two years they are still nowhere close. Ahmed Maher, the co-founder of the April 6th Youth Movement, declared in Al-Ahram: “We supported President Morsi when he ran for the presidency. Now, after he issued his constitutional declaration, rammed through a new constitution and failed to meet the goals of the revolution, we have joined the ranks of the opposition”.
Maher’s words should remind the EU and US that it is necessary to advocate for the protection of the Egyptian people, especially young people who have not only been the most important actors of the revolution, but also represent Egypt’s future. The outside world needs to address the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood when it comes to the protection of minority groups and those most vulnerable.
Egypt is at risk of becoming a hub of sectarian disorder and for the moment its government is doing little to address this problem. The EU should use its soft power to remind the Egyptian government of its obligations and that it seeks to maintain good relations, but only if it has a responsible partner.
Valentina Colombo is a Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels