EU-Egypt Taskforce: the perfect misunderstanding

«I didn’t realize that you hate us», said European Commissioner Stefan Fühle after a two hour discussion with Egyptian NGO’s. It was the last meeting of the EU-Egypt Taskforce. This Taskforce assembled four hundred politicians and entrepreneurs for two days in Cairo in order to see how we could better cooperate. The meeting was very high level. From the Egyptian side the prime minister was there, the foreign minister and many other ministers and members of the Shura Council. From the European side Lady Ashton was there, as well as EU Commissioners Tajani and Fühle, many foreign ministers and members of European Parliament.

The most important news from the Taskforce was the announcement by the European Commission to support Egypt with no less than 5 billion euro. Not without conditions. Egypt should comply with the conditions of the IMF. A thing Egyptians don’t really like to hear. They have a collective historical aversion of foreign loans. It was King Mohamed Ali who took loans from Britain and France to build the newly independent Egypt into a European-style power in the first half of the 19th century. When he was unable to pay the loans back, Britain took half of the Egyptian ministries. It was only until the Suez crisis in 1956, more then a century later, that Egypt succeeded in kicking the foreign powers out and regained its independency. This historical fear, together with the feeling of humiliation – why can’t we govern our own business in a proper way – makes Egyptians happy and unhappy at the same time with foreign support and certainly if it is conditioned.

Conditions, that is what it is all about. When I visited with some liberal Members of European Parliament the Prime Minister just after the revolution (it was still Shafiq…), he told us that we supported Mubarak before and that we were not well placed to tell the Egyptians what to do. A few months later we met with PM Sharaf and he told us the same thing. Guess what, this week PM Qandil and president Morsi gave the Europeans exactly the same message. And the Europeans feeling guilty about the Mubarak era back off. At least publicly. Not realizing that by being silent they make the same mistake as they did with Mubarak. The most obvious example during this week was the incident with the civil society.

The Egyptian government invited the civil society (NGO’s, human rights and development organisations) to participate to the EU-Egypt Taskforce. A few days before the actual meeting the government withdrew the invitation. The European Commission was not pleased and thought about what they could do. Or they could blow up the whole thing, but in their eyes that seemed a bit exaggerated. Or they could insist on meeting the civil society separate from the official program. That’s what they did.

So this is the core of the perfect mutual misunderstanding. The EU honestly thinks that as long as they listen to the civil society and take their remarks serious, everything is fine. Even more, a high-level European representative asked the civil society to be grateful as the EU did organise a dinner with them. The Egyptian civil society was utterly shocked that they were erased from the official delegation and sidelined to a dinner. Why? This is not only about pride. This is about the revolution itself. Not the organisers of the Taskforce risked their life on Tahrir square. On the contrary, they are exactly the same people of twenty (some even forty) years ago. It were these guys who sidelined the civil society every single time under Mubarak and it were the same guys who repeated the same scenario. As if the revolution never happened.

When European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, Stefan Fühle comes to explain during a dinner for the sidelined civil society that there are also human rights and democratic conditions in the EU package, he should not be surprised that the attendees react sceptically and even angry. Because if he is serious about these conditions, why did he then allow the Egyptian government to screw the first moment where his words could be applied? And this in the very week, one year after the clashes in Mohamed Mahmud street, where more than forty youngsters had been killed by police snipers. Nevertheless, Mister Fühle, the Egyptians don’t hate the EU. But they are vey frustrated and disillusioned. They had hoped for more. Much more. And frankly, they are right.

  1. #1 by CCG on November 15, 2012 - 4:39 pm

    Not 5 million, but 5 billion euro

  2. #2 by Victor on November 15, 2012 - 6:18 pm

    They expected more, like what? Conditions or not conditions? This article doesn´t actually inform. It seems rather contradictory, like the revolutionaries themselves.

    The West is always blamed for all the problems in the world and asked to both intervene and not intervene. Egyptians have proven they can control their country if they want. Let them take responsibility.

    • #3 by U5K0 on November 15, 2012 - 6:34 pm

      Thank you.

      It seems to me that this article has only one purpose: to criticise. This would be fine, if the criticism were clear and an alternative were indicated, offered or demanded, but it isn’t.

  3. #4 by jon livesey on November 15, 2012 - 11:38 pm

    “It was only until the Suez crisis in 1956, more then a century later, that Egypt succeeded in kicking the foreign powers out and regained its independency.”

    This is an interesting way to put things. It was only the western powers whose influence was removed, to be replaced by the influence of the USSR.

    That’s a bit of a side-light into the ideological bent of the author. That getting the West out, and the USSR in means that you have regained your independence.

    Poles, Czechs and Hungarians might have a different opinion.

    • #5 by agdokk on November 22, 2012 - 11:16 am

      The influence of USSR did not come heavily until later, early 60s, when Nasser pulled Egypt in a more socialist way.
      In the mid 50s Nasser’s main goal was building Egyptian infrastructure and social programs. In this he initially looked to the West. When he didn’t get what he wanted there, however, he looked Eastwards.
      I would not say that it is wrong to say that Egypt became eventually independent in 1956.

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  5. #7 by Koert Debeuf on November 16, 2012 - 10:14 pm

    Victor, the point is that if Europe says it puts conditions on their support, they should be serious about it. If the EU would have played it hard (just like the Egyptians always do) the ngo’s would have been part of the official delegation. The problem of our credibility is the we never want to play it hard, certainly not if it concerns liberties or democracy. And that is exactly what the revolutionary people were hoping for. I hope I made my point more clear now.

    • #8 by Victor on November 17, 2012 - 7:41 pm

      So Egyptian civil society wants money without IMF style conditions…and the EU to impose on the democratically elected government the composition of its official delegation (like it does to who, USA? China? Russia?).

      The NGO´s should wake to the fact that if they didn´t have sway during Mubarak they won´t have sway now. Not without popular support.

      The EU can´t just wave magic sticks and create liberalism where it doesn´t exist or isn´t welcome.

      The West is barely trying to keep these new democratic governments from repeating the populist mistakes of the past so that the West itself won´t have to repeat the mistake of having to again support authoritarian regimes because of the failures of democracy.

      Regardless of the chicken and egg theoretical debate, now Egyptians have had their revolution…if they can keep it.

      Foreign voters always wish domestic Western voters were interested, even obsessed, with what is happening in their countries. No such thing occurs. The West has its own problems. By the time things have gone wrong enough, the Western intervention (if any) will be messy and insufficient.

      Even the Western elites long ago gave up on colonialism. People argued that the US would stay in Iraq and rule it forever. Guess what, Americans couldn´t be happier to get out. Now if the non-Westerners could adapt to the end of colonialism too, it would be great, beginning by taking full responsibility for their own governance.

  6. #9 by agdokk on November 22, 2012 - 11:37 am


    Thank you for an interesting blog.

    When you decide to draw historical lines it is important to get your facts right.
    * Mohammed Ali (or Mehmet Ali, he was Turkish speaking of Albanian origin) was never King of Egypt allthough he virtually ruled independent of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. He was in name a mere Wali, governor, of Egypt, but styled himself as a Khedive, a title Ismail later would succeed in attaining from the Ottoman Sultan.
    * And it was Ismail, and to a certain extent his predecessor Said who started to secure loans from European banks. Mohammed Ali took his drew from slaves, peasants (the fellahin), trade and to some extent industry. Said started the borrowing when he decided to build the Suez Canal, while Ismail increased it heavily during the American Civil War which gave Egypt enormeous revenue due to high cotton prices. Ismail drew new loans on the basis on that revenue to finance the Canal, modernisation of the country (for example what is today Downtown Cairo) and personal grandeur. When the revenue from cotton sales plummeted after the Civil War ended Egyptian finances was hit hard and Ismail borrowed even more to pay his existing loans. The borrowing spiral ended with a European commision that was meant to supervise Egypt’s economy to make sure that the country paid its debts. In the long run neither Ismail nor a large bulk of Egyptians would accept this. The whole saga ended with Ismail being deposed by the Ottoman Sultan, in favour of his son Tawfiq, followed by an uprising led by Colonel Ahmad Orabi who defied the European powers. The Orabist (or Egyptian) Army was thoroughly beaten by the British at Tell el-Kabir in 1882 and this paved the way for nearly 75 years of British rule or heavy influence in Egypt.

    By the way, you are right that the Egyptians are wary of securing loans. When Egypts first elected Parliament convened in 1923 (24?), they took painstaking measures to balance the books of the government and not depend on foreign borrowing.

  7. #10 by Koert Debeuf on November 25, 2012 - 10:47 pm

    Thank you Agdokk, for your very interesting comment. What I have written, came from some books. I am happy to be corrected by facts. Btw, I thought Orabi revolted against the sytem in the army which gave lower class Egyptians very limited possibilities to climb the ladder of higher ranks. A system dating back from the Mameluks. Was his revolt a anti-occupation one?
    Another interesting remark you make is the one on the cotton sales. I knew it was important but what you describe is a real bubble, like the one that bursted in 2008… Or do I see this wrongly?

    Best regards.