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Viewpoints: Is the West powerless in Egypt?

  • 16 August 2013
  • From the section World
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Composite photo: Barack Obama, Catherine Ashton, William Hague, Egyptian pro-Morsi protestors

Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Morsi have taken to the streets again on Friday, even though a state of emergency remains in force.

The protests are taking place two days after Muslim Brotherhood camps were broken up by security forces, leaving at least 638 dead.

In the wake of Wednesday's violence, police have been authorised to use live ammunition in self-defence.

President Mohamed Morsi was ousted 3 July by the Egyptian military, in what the US and other nations have avoided labelling a "coup".

The US cancelled joint exercises with Egypt's military on Thursday but stopped short of suspending aid to Cairo.

Below, a panel discuss the role of the West in Egypt and whether they are powerless to stop the escalating crisis.

Dr Katerina Dalacoura, lecturer at the London School of Economics

I would argue that the West - which includes the US and the European Union - is powerless in Egypt.

Even if the US were prepared to withdraw military aid from Egypt, which would affect the Egyptian army in the long term, the crisis is so profound at present that considering this eventual cost would not affect the immediate calculations of the Egyptian government. The EU has even more limited means of imposing a particular policy on Egypt.

It has been clear for a few weeks now that the new Egyptian regime has decided in favour of a heavy-handed policy against the Islamists and the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

This is either because the Egyptian army knows no other manner of operating, or because there is a calculation that, despite the loss of life, violent repression will be more effective in silencing opposition and the possibility of long-term Islamist reaction can be forestalled.

The widespread condemnation of recent events is crucial in reminding the Egyptian government that the world is watching.

This moral indignation may appear hypocritical on the part of the US government but we must remember that it does not rest only on the abhorrence at the loss of life but also on the belief that Islamists must be included in the political process, which has had many supporters in Washington for quite a while.

Whatever happens behind the scenes between governments, upholding universal standards at least on a rhetorical level is important in itself - but beyond this there is not much the West can do.

Mona Al-Qazzaz, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood

As an Egyptian, [I think] we should be able to sort our problems internally. The priority should be for internal resolution. As Egyptians, we need to have a democratic platform to sort out our problems.

But the military stepped in and hijacked power. They created this imbalance in the political scene and then there have been violations of human rights, one after the other.

But there's silence from the international community and very weak condemnation, which is not what we expected.

The African Union, as soon as the coup was orchestrated, upheld its democratic principles - whereas the West hesitated in denouncing a coup.

You know a tree from its fruit and you know a coup from its massacres.

The international community stood together against crimes against humanity in different countries. What we've seen in Egypt, it's not about the Muslim Brotherhood anymore, it's about humanity. Humanity is being violated. And the international community is even failing to clearly condemn what's happening.

[They should be] condemning the violence, stopping the massacres, and blaming the murderers for the killing. They need to hold the criminals accountable through transparent, independent investigations.

We've seen the massacres running for hours, and the world stood silent.

We had some weak, faint voices the next day. But it's not the first one - we've had at least five major massacres in Egypt since [the military takeover].

We ask the international community not to deal with this government. They should only be dealing with the legitimate democratic body.

The EU envoy has been trying to broker a solution between the military junta and the coalition of legitimacy in Egypt, and we appreciate [attempts] to broker a solution.

But the West is very selective. It is biased towards one side more than the other. The West decided to turn a blind eye to the millions of Egyptians who have taken to the streets. They should be impartial and uphold their democratic values.

David Butter, associate fellow at Chatham House

The West's response to the Egyptian political crisis has been described by Gideon Rachman, a columnist with the Financial Times, as "confused spluttering".

Harsh, but a fair reflection of the difficulty that governments in the US and Europe have had in dealing with a complex and fast-moving situation. Behind the scenes, US and European diplomats and politicians have worked hard to prevent the escalation of violence that resulted from the decision to send troops and armed police into the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps on 14 August.

Their efforts were in vain, as Egypt's new military rulers plainly calculated that the West lacks the resolve to put real pressure on them, as witnessed by the weakness of the reaction to the removal of Mohammed Morsi as president and to two previous instances of mass killings of protesters, on 8 July and 27 July.

Why doesn't the US simply cut off military aid? The $1.3bn (£831m) in military sales grants is tied to multi-year procurements from American arms manufacturers, which wield influence on Capitol Hill.

Israel, on balance, prefers to work with a US-supplied Egyptian military in combating the security threats it faces from Sinai. Saudi Arabia is a much bigger customer for US arms, and was aghast when the US allowed Hosni Mubarak to fall and the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power.

Europe could declare an arms embargo and suspend economic aid, but European companies would lose business, and the EU has no interest in taking steps that create more economic misery on its southern doorstep.

These factors do not preclude the US and the EU taking such steps, but they give the politicians pause.

The West can keep on trying to persuade Egypt's rulers that political accommodation is in all Egyptians' best interest. If that is derided as ineffective hand-wringing, there are not many other feasible options.

Spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)

The UK has been involved in intensive diplomatic efforts over the last month, directed at reaching a peaceful resolution to the standoff. We have talked extensively to all sides. [Foreign Office Minister Alastair] Burt visited Egypt on 24 July and spoke to the interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

[Defence Secretary Philip] Hammond also spoke to General el-Sisi on 13 August to urge restraint in any actions to clear protesters. Our efforts, with those of others in the international community, have helped create opportunities for compromise.

Yesterday we called in the Egyptian ambassador to express our deep concern at the escalating violence and unrest in Egypt.

Simon Gass, the FCO political director, condemned the use of force to clear the protests and urged the Egyptian authorities to act with the greatest restraint. Our ambassador in Cairo has also delivered these messages to Egyptian minister of interior and assistant defence secretary.

The goal remains a democratic and inclusive Egypt that can make strong steps towards economic recovery.

We have also revoked a number of export licence agreements. These licences were judged at the time of issue to be consistent with stringent internationally recognised criteria. However, in light of the recent situation in Egypt, eight licences have been revoked as we assess that they are now inconsistent with the criteria - specifically, [we have] concerns about the potential for exports to be used for internal repression.

The majority of UK support to Egypt is channelled through multilateral agencies to support the Egyptian people. All support and bilateral relations are already under review.

This is a difficult and changing situation and we remain extremely concerned. We have talked extensively to all sides. The EU, US, Qatar and United Arab Emirates mediation team exerted significant effort in trying to broker a compromise. It is disappointing that a compromise has not been reached but it is important that all sides renew their efforts.

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