Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Eighth Report

5  Egypt


151. Egypt is one of the most powerful and populous states in the Middle East, and has often assumed the mantle of political leadership in the Arab world. Having signed its own peace agreement with Israel in 1979, it has played an important role in promoting the normalisation of relations between Israel and her other neighbours. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak came to power in October 1981, following the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat earlier that month. Since this date, Egypt has been ruled without interruption under Emergency Law. The country now faces a number of domestic challenges, including democratisation and the rise of political Islam.

152. On our visit, we heard that foreign direct investment in Egypt is booming and helping to fuel economic growth. The UK is the largest foreign investor into Egypt and enjoys healthy diplomatic relations with Cairo. This suggests that the Government is well placed to play a positive role in influencing and working with the Egyptian authorities on its domestic challenges.

Recent Developments

Human Rights and Democratisation

153. After the events of 11 September 2001, the Egyptian Government came under international pressure to implement democratic reforms. In a key speech in Cairo on 20 June 2005, US Secretary of State Dr Condoleezza Rice said that Egypt must give "its citizens the freedom to choose":

Egypt's elections, including the Parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election. Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation.[253]

154. Egypt held Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2005. A constitutional amendment meant that for the first time, multiple candidates were allowed to stand for the Presidential election. President Mubarak won a fifth six-year term with 88.6% of the votes cast, on a turnout of 23%.[254] The election was met with criticism, after Mubarak's nearest challenger, Ayman Nour of the Tomorrow Party, campaigned whilst on bail and was later imprisoned for five years on fraud charges. The UK held the Presidency of the EU at the time, and released a statement expressing "concern" at his conviction and underlining that it "sends negative signals about democratic political reform in Egypt."[255]

155. Egypt's 2005 Parliamentary elections were won, as expected, by the ruling National Democratic Party. However, individuals associated with the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood movement were remarkably successful. The elections were marred by violence and mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Dr Hollis told the Committee that "the Government were found to be guilty of brutality and paying bribes to get people to vote in the elections."[256] In the months following the elections, the Egyptian Government launched a further crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood.[257]

156. Hugh Roberts from the International Crisis Group has remarked that "there is no prospect of significant political reform in Egypt in the foreseeable future. It's dead in the water […] Western efforts to shape reform in Egypt have been a fiasco."[258] We put Mr Roberts' assessment to the Minister for the Middle East when he appeared before the Committee. Dr Howells replied:

I would agree with some of it, which might surprise you. Last December, President Mubarak announced constitutional amendments, some of which we could recognise as real steps forward towards a more democratic, open society. Some have been interpreted as a step backwards. [259]

157. The constitutional amendments referred to by Dr Howells were voted on in a referendum that took place during our visit to Egypt. The opposition boycotted the process, leaving the Egyptian Government's victory assured. We heard a range of opinions on the constitutional amendments, but it seems clear that they do not signal the advance of immediate political reform. Dr Hollis highlighted to the Committee the difficulty facing attempts at such reform:

The Egyptians sometimes describe their state as a pharaonic state: it is all pervasive. Egyptians therefore have great difficulty in getting their heads around the idea of progressive reform […] For fear of experimentation that could demonstrate that the state does not need to be as all-pervasive, they are not having any experimentation. Up against that, I simply do not know what to advise; I do not think that you can make much change from the outside.[260]

158. Dr Howells focused on one of the root causes for Egypt's reluctance to embrace democratic reform:

What is extraordinary about Egypt is that the most progressive elements among the chattering classes, or the political class, are very worried about the prospect of greater democracy. They are very worried about the distinct possibility that the extreme Islamic parties could make great progress if the elections were freer and fairer, and that the secular state of Egypt, as it exists at the moment, would come under great threat. [261]

159. Dr Hollis highlighted one reason for the electoral popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing that it "contrasts very well with the Government in terms of corruption." She warned against misinterpreting the causes of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and pressed the point that whilst the current Government may be perceived as corrupt, "that does not mean that the state is discredited, or that there is a love affair with Islamism." She said an interesting solution would be "a version of democracy or reform that brings such opposition into the system but does not overthrow the system overnight."[262]

160. On our visit, we heard from analysts that the Muslim Brotherhood has committed to non-violence and that it has accepted the democratic process as a way of bringing about their goals gradually. It remains uncertain as to what extent its goals would challenge the secular Egyptian state, or indeed how diverse these goals are. These issues may only become clear once the Muslim Brotherhood is legitimately allowed to participate within the Egyptian political system, rather than have its members sit in Parliament as independents at fear of repression.

161. We conclude that there are serious concerns about the progress of democratic reform in Egypt. We recommend that the Government should use its close relationship with Cairo to maintain pressure on the Egyptian Government to widen participation in its political system. We further conclude that the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful and important force in Egypt. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood expresses a commitment to the democratic process and non-violence, we recommend that the British Government should engage with it and seek to influence its members.


162. Egypt is a member of the 'Arab Quartet' of countries lobbying for rapid progress on the Middle East Peace Process, the other countries being Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan.[263] Along with Jordan, it has also been asked by the League of Arab States to explore with Israel the opportunity presented by the Arab Initiative for Peace.[264]

163. Egypt has a particularly important and historic relationship with Gaza, as its only Arab neighbour. Before the dramatic events of June 2007, Dr Hollis had told us that "the fact that the heart of the struggle between Hamas and Fatah is Gaza has increased the level of Egyptian influence". Ms Nomi Bar-Yaacov commented that Egypt's involvement in Gaza was "vast", in particular in the security sector and that it has an "extremely positive and ongoing role to play." However, she noted in February that "all the ammunition into Gaza is coming through tunnels in Egypt that are being dug all the time. It is important to monitor that issue, and more can be done on that front."[265] Dr Gooderham told the Committee that one of the agreements that have come out of "trilateral meetings between Rice, Abbas and Olmert is that the quadrilateral committee, which involves the three plus Egypt, should reconvene" to tackle the problem of arms smuggling.[266] It is clear that not enough work was done to prevent a build-up of arms before the dramatic events of June 2007.

164. Dr Gooderham told us in February that Egypt enjoys a "difficult" relationship with Hamas.[267] This is due, in part, to Hamas' historic roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. The events of June 2007 may place this relationship under further strain. At the time of preparing this Report, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt had been closed since early June 2007. Egyptian security officials estimated that up to 4,000 Palestinians were stranded on the Egyptian side of the crossing.[268] In late June, the deputy head of the EU monitoring mission at Rafah said that European monitors would not return to the crossing whilst Hamas retained sole control of the Gaza Strip.[269] On 5 July 2007, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Shahid Malik, called the situation "unacceptable from anybody's perspective."[270]

165. We conclude that Egypt has an important role to play in the Middle East Peace Process. We recommend that the Government set out its policy on the Rafah crossing, and that it continue to work with Egypt and other parties to seek the re-opening of the crossing as soon as possible.

253   "Remarks at the American University in Cairo", 20 June 2005, Back

254   "Egypt Election Row Sparks Protest", BBC News Online, 10 September 2005, Back

255   "EU Statement on Outcome of the Trial of Ayman Nour in Egypt", 27 December 2005, Back

256   Q 77 Back

257   "A country in crisis as fearful government cracks down on Islamist opposition", The Guardian, 19 July 2007 Back

258   "Egypt finds democracy can wait", The Guardian, 16 May 2006 Back

259   Q 172 Back

260   Q 78 Back

261   Q 172 Back

262   Q 77 Back

263   Q 52 Back

264   "Arab leaders offer Israel guarded peace offer", The Guardian, 30 March 2007 Back

265   Q 80 Back

266   Q 47 Back

267   Q 47 Back

268   "Ministers of Palestinian emergency government visit stranded Palestinians in Egypt", International Herald Tribune, 8 July 2007 Back

269   "EU monitors to stay away from Rafah", Jerusalem Post, 28 June 2007 Back

270   HC Deb, 5 July 2007, col 334WH Back

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Prepared 13 August 2007