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The EU was 'a puppet in the hands of the Egyptians' says member state

Documents leaked to the Middle East Eye show EU states outraged by 'political' decision to have EU observers monitor Egyptian elections
Mario David chief EU election observer in Egypt inspect polls in Cairo on 26 May (AA)

The EU made a “political” decision to re-instate its election monitoring team in Egypt, despite conditions which fell well below international norms for observing elections, the Middle East Eye can reveal.

The admission that the decision to reinstate the monitors was political is revealed in internal minutes seen by the MEE of a stormy meeting held in Brussels on 19 May, the day Mario David, the Chief Observer of the EU Mission announced from Cairo that the mission would be going ahead. 

Following the chief observer's announcement, member states lined up to express "serious concern". They also denounced the decision as spin in what was formally minuted as a “difficult and critical” exchange with representatives of Catherine Ashton’s European External Action Service (EEAS).

Fourtneen out of 28 member states said that as a result of the Cairo announcement, the EU’s credibility had been undermined and the system of observing elections was “in a shambles”.

The Netherlands said the EU was “a puppet in the hands of the Egyptians”. Ireland said that Ashton had “given in to the Egyptians” and the UK representative said it was naive to think that Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was dissociated from the rest of the Egyptian government.

This comment refers to the role played by the MFA in releasing the satellite phones and access to an international service provider demanded by the EU observers. The withdrawl of these key supplies was used as the pretext to suspend the mission 48 hours earlier on 17 May. 

At that point the mission had been downgraded to a lesser Elections Assessment Team (EAT). The subsequent decision to upgrade the mission into a full Election Observation Mission (EOM) angered representatives of member states, particularly the UK’s, as conditions in Egypt fell far short of the EU’s own exhaustive standards. 

Failure to meet EU standards 

The EU’s handbook for election observation runs to 224 pages. On pages 101-102 it lays down a strict timetable for the deployment of monitoring teams around the country and says that long-term observers should have been deployed five weeks before election day.

However, the observers could not follow the campaign in the Egyptian governorates and the UK representative in particular was upset by Ashton’s decision to call the final result a full observation mission. ”Exactly what are we dealing with now?” the minutes note the UK representative as saying.

Mario David, the chief observer, in his statement said only that observers would be deployed “as widely as possible” outside the Egyptian capital. Member states expressed fury that the “mission was back on track" and that the U-turn was being given such a positive spin by the EEAS.

Denmark, France, UK, Spain, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands said that the “sudden” decision to turn the status of the monitors from an election assessment team into an election observation monitoring team was “bad handling” and that the EEAS should not have “given in”.

Egypt’s elections, held on 26 – 28 May, were bogged down by reports of a low turnout, which prompted authorities to extend voting for a third day. While the official turnout figure now stands at 47 percent, other estimates have said this was substantially lower. President-elect and former field marshal Abdel Fatah Sisi’s only challenger Hamdeen Sabahi conceded the election on Friday. Final results are scheduled to come out later this week, although Sisi’s camp estimates that it has won by more than 90 percent of the vote.  

A spokesman for the EEAS said: ”We do not comment publicly on internal EU discussions. We have several such meetings weekly.” A EU source, who was not allowed to comment publicly on the matter, said the meeting was overtaken by events and he claimed the EOM in Egypt was able to carry out its work effectively.

The row in Brussels reflects widespread anxiety at the heart of the EU that Ashton and her top advisers, who are in their final months of office, are getting too close to the leader of the July 2013 military coup and president-elect Sisi.

The EU has refused to call the military-backed overthorw of the former president Mohamed Morsi a coup. Although the preliminary statement of the EOM said that respect for essential freedoms of association and expression in Egypt “fell short” of the principles outlined in its own constitution, there is concern that the EOM will conclude that the presidential election was free and thus fair.

Internal critics of Ashton say that the High Representative is neither maintaining her own democratic standards, nor is she acquiring leverage with an increasingly hostile and xenophobic regime in Egypt.

Two members of the observer team were thrown out of a meeting of the National Council for Women in Egypt at the weekend for having submitted a report that highlighted cases of sexual harassment during the election campaign.

Mirvat Tilawi, chairwoman of the council, addressing them in English said: ”The European Union continue to be (the) enemy of Egypt. You are losers and we are the winners. You are out of the Middle East.”

The EU delegation left the meeting in the Opera House to resounding cries of “God is Great”. Egyptian daily al-masry al-youm reported one of the delegates as saying: “What has happened is dictatorship. We have been working on the monitoring of elections in Cairo for a long time.”

African Union 

The EU’s mounting problems with the new regime in Egypt also concern the African Union. The AU expelled Egypt as a member when the military coup took place, but has since come under sustained pressure from the EU to reverse that decision.

A senior AU source told the MEE: ”The EU is putting us under huge pressure, principally because Brussels is giving about 50 percent of our budget.” In the last ten years the EU has paid the AU about 1bn euros ($1.3bn), while the annual budget of the AU is around $260m.

In April, the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights gave the Egyptian authorities two weeks to annul the group death sentences passed by a court in Minya, initially on 529 defendants. Following the demand, 492 cases were commuted but in a separate case a further 683 people were condemned to death, including the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Badie. More than a month after that ruling, however, the Commission has yet to make any official condemnation, a move many see as a further sign that the AU is coming under pressure to reverse its stance.

Saudi Arabia, which bankrolls Sisi’s regime, has mounted a sustained campaign in West Africa. Kuwait, which in November offered $1bn grant and the same again in loans to development projects in Africa, has also lobbied key states. Just last week, Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad al-Sabah met with his Ethiopian counterpart Tedros Adhanom on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Non-aligned Movement, which concluded in Algeria on Thursday.

"[Sheikh Sabah] has exerted strenuous efforts to reactivate Egypt's AU membership," a source said, citing that Kuwait maintains "excellent" relations with African countries.