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Opposition mounts to Egyptian president's UK visit

Although the actual day of Sisi's arrival remains unknown, opponents of the visit are pushing for it to be cancelled before it even begins
Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi this week after arriving in New Delhi the Third India-Africa Forum Summit (AFP)

British politicians, human rights advocates and expat Egyptians are gearing up for an expected visit to London next week by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, although details of the trip – and even official government confirmation of the exact dates of the visit – have remained under tight wraps.

“It’s ridiculous,” Sameh Shafi, a coordinator of the UK-based grassroots movement, Stop Sisi, told Middle East Eye on Thursday. “Imagine if [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel was coming. Would it be so secretive? No. It would be very well known. I guess it’s an admission of guilt on both [UK and Egyptian government] sides. Both are keeping it an absolute secret.”

Despite refusal by Downing Street to confirm that exact dates of the visit, it has provoked a fire storm of letters this week from politicians, civil society leaders and solicitors demanding that the government cancel the invitation.

"We regard any visit to the UK by this despot as an affront to democratic values. No considerations of commerce or realpolitik can justify such an invitation," said an open letter in The Guardian on Tuesday with 55 signatories, including shadow chancellor John McDonnell and Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, a broad coalition calling for the return of civil-society democracy to Egypt.

ITN Solicitors, lawyers who are representing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party of deposed former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, told Prime Minister David Cameron in a letter also sent this week that "were it not for the fact that he enjoys immunity by virture of his public office, there is a very real prospect that General Sisi would be arrested on his visit to the United Kingdom".

The letter, slightly modified versions of which were also sent to opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, called on the government to "ensure that the Sisi regime is accountable for its crimes".

Calling for questions

Shafi said Stop Sisi, which is not aligned to any Egyptian party or movement and opposes the British government’s invitation to Sisi over Egypt’s human rights violations under his tenure, have been lobbying British politicians to question the invitation in parliament.

Among these violations, Shafi and others who are critical of the UK's invitation note, are an estimated 40,000 Egyptians who have been imprisoned, often in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, since the July 2013 coup, many as a result of their dissent against the government or their support for Morsi, who was toppled in a coup in 2013 after winning democratic elections. 

Those imprisoned include some 150 Egyptian members of parliament, at least two of whom died in recent months after failing to receive medical treatment, according Azzam.

Shafi said his group also planned to demonstrate in front of 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence, on 4 November, the night before Sisi is expected to arrive.

During a meeting in parliament this week, in which Sondos Asem, who served as a media coordinator in Morsi's government and was the first Egyptian woman to be sentenced to death in a mass trial this May, discussed her case, a top barrister and peer in the House of Lords and a former top UK ambassador were also critical of the situation in Egypt.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC said Egypt's rule of law and trial processes were being abused. She said she planned to officially question the appropriateness of Sisi's invitation next week in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British parliament.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's former UN ambassador, called the situation in Egypt "a disaster for the Middle East".

"If Egypt is going wrong, what hope is there for other countries in the region?" Greenstock said, adding that the situation in the country had become "unsustainable" for Egyptians trying to prosper.

Further, he said, the polarisation of religion and politics in the country could result in blowback against the US and the UK among radicalised individuals.

Mystery agenda 

Sisi's agenda has not been released publicly, but Middle East Eye understands it will include a meeting with Cameron, who invited him to the UK in June, and with other MPs.

Given the countries close trade ties, some have speculated that his visit could also include the signing of several business deals, potentially including for weaponry which the Egyptian government has been steadily buying in recent months.

As he has travelled to capitals across Europe this year, there have been whispers that Sisi was coming to London. As early as June, British politicians attempted to get clarity from the government about when Sisi might come and what would be discussed. 

On 15 October, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who raised Sisi's proposed trip to London with the British foreign secretary in June and was subsequently one of 44 MPs who called for his invitation to be rescinded in July, asked once again for details about the visit, but the government once again refused to be drawn on details.

In response, Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood wrote: "The Prime Minister has invited President Sisi to the UK and the visit will take before the end of this year. Discussions will take place with President Sisi on a wide range of issues of mutual interest, including trade and security."

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