Today, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death, the latest in a number of moves towards authoritarian government by the military regime in Egypt.
Since the coup d'état in Egypt on 3 July 2013, more than 1,400 peaceful protesters have been killed. The anti-Mubarak activists who manned the barricades in 2011 are now imprisoned. Journalists critical to the new regime have lost their jobs. All forms of organised opposition to the military have been met with a forceful crackdown, and all serious contenders to Field Marshal al-Sisi have now withdrawn as candidates from the upcoming presidential election.
Even Mubarak’s former Prime Minister, who could hardly be described as an advocate of democracy, has referred to the process of democratisation in Egypt as “a farce”. The military regime is more violent, more authoritarian and less open to freedom of speech than Husni Mubarak himself. It now appears that the old elite are regaining power.
To date, the Norwegian Government’s reaction to the clear move towards dictatorship in Egypt can only be described as tacit acceptance. Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende has so far only published two press releases regarding Egypt, both expressing “concern” about freedom of speech – an extremely feeble wording which has seen no form of official follow-up.
Egypt adopted a new Constitution paving the way for the reintroduction of a dictatorship, yet Børge Brende made no comment. A former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was arrested, the charges partly based on an educational trip he undertook to Norway, yet Børge Brende remained silent. At least 106 activists celebrating the third anniversary of the Revolution were shot and killed by their own army out on the streets on 25 January 2014, yet Børge Brende refrained from criticism.
This tacit acceptance of the military regime in Egypt is in stark contrast to Børge Brende’s reaction to the developments in the Ukraine. When 26 protesters were killed in Maidan Square on 19 February, the Norwegian Minister was quick to condemn the violence in strong words and to impose sanctions on President Yanukovych. How can it be that the murder of 26 protesters can lead to sanctions on the Ukraine, while the murder of 1,400 protesters since August has only given rise to two feeble press releases? This silent acceptance is in direct opposition to the Foreign Minister’s statement that human rights are a priority for the new Government in Norway, and that he intends to take a “principled approach” to breaches of human rights and humanitarian rights.
Not only is the failure to criticise Egypt for its actions a problem in terms of principles, it is also bad/poor foreign policy. Norway’s objective is to be perceived as a peacekeeping nation with firm principles in the Arab world, and has succeeded in this on a number of occasions; for example when Hamas won the election in 2006 and formed a coalition government with Fatah. At that time, Norway was one of few nations to support democratic principles and to accept the new coalition, unlike the USA and the EU.
Now that Norway appears to have forsaken its principles and accepted the brutal treatment by authoritarian regimes of their own people, it will be much more difficult in the long term to sustain Norway’s image as a peacemaker in the region
Norway and other western powers have also turned their backs on those fighting for democracy in Egypt, whether they do so under secular or Islamist banners. The international community, Norway included, has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the few protesters remaining on the barricades.
This only serves to ignite the critical claims of groups in Egypt and the Arab world, that the west is guilty of double standards and only reacts to breaches of human rights and democracy when this serves their own interests. The increasing number of attacks by groups similar to the Al-Qaeda is a symptom of this development.
Non-solution in Egypt
Why have Børge Brende and the Government chosen a line of tacit acceptance when this represents both poor policy and a breach of their own principles? We have to assume that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is well aware of the situation in Egypt, and that their acceptance cannot be blamed on ignorance. We also believe that the Foreign Minister and Ministry are acting in good faith. The likely explanation is therefore that the Norwegian Government does not know how to take a stand to the situation in Egypt and has decided not to.
The Government’s perplexity is understandable. There has been very little black and white in the chaos which has followed the downfall of Mubarak in 2011. Take for example the Muslim Brotherhood, who gained power in 2012. Their actions have shown evidence of arrogance of power and authoritarian tendencies, and they can hardly be described as democratic role models.
There is no clear road to democracy in Egypt and no quick fixes to be found. However, uncertainty cannot excuse almost silent acceptance of a regime’s execution and uninhibited persecution of its critics. The developments in Egypt will undoubtedly have an impact on the entire Arab world, and washing our hands of the situation is a potentially hazardous non-solution.
We Cannot Afford to be Indifferent
“No one nation shall be allowed to breach international law without facing consequences,” stated Foreign Minister Børge Brende in relation to the sanctions imposed on Russia recently. The Egyptian regime is guilty of breaches of fundamental democratic rights day after day. What consequences should they face?
We hope that the Norwegian Government will realise the brutality of this new military regime. We hope that they will now awaken from their indifference to define a clear policy on Egypt that is in line with the principles of democracy and human rights. The current policy in Norway is untenable in terms of principles and implies a tacit acceptance of the re-introduction of the authoritarian regime which the Arab Spring sought to abolish.
Authors: Jacob Høigilt (PRIO) & Kristian Takvam Kindt (FAFO)
Photo: Mr Abdallah Dalsh / REUTERS