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Public figures make last-minute call for cancellation of Sisi visit

Figures warn UK government that hosting Egyptian president goes beyond politics and is an issue not of 'right and left', but 'right and wrong'
Lindsay German, Maha Azzam and Peter Oborne speaking at a press conference (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

Several British political figures made a last ditch attempt on Tuesday to dissuade the UK government from extending an invitation to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as the former field marshall prepares to visit London this week.

Speaking at a press conference in Westminster, organised by the Egyptian Revolutionary Council and the Stop Sisi campaign, Maha Azzam - a fellow at Chatham House - warned that Sisi would attempt to portray himself as a "bulwark" of stability and friend to the UK in the war against terrorism.

“Violent extremism in Egypt has increased threefold since he has come to power," Azzam said. "There is a growing radicalisation and appeal for the Islamic State and such groups.”

Peter Oborne, a columnist for Middle East Eye and the Spectator, said that he had never expected to find himself on the same platform as Lindsey German of the Stop the War coalition - also present at the conference - but said that Sisi's crimes were "not a matter of right and left" but were "a matter of right and wrong".

“It would be best if this visit could be cancelled, even at this late moment," said Oborne. "However, if it is not to be cancelled, then it is very important that the prime minister raise all the issues we have raised at this conference.”

Official notice for Sisi's visit was given on Monday evening, unusually late for a diplomatic visit. In a press release, a government spokesperson said that the trip aimed to "better coordinate and elevate relations to a new partnership level based on promoting stability and development in Egypt."

"President El Sisi will hold a bilateral meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss ways of advancing political, economic and security cooperation, as well as to discuss the latest regional developments and the challenges that they pose, namely terrorism."

It also said that Sisi would meet with "a number of British intellectuals" and that "two MoUs [memorandums of understanding] in the fields of security and higher education will be signed between Egypt and the UK during the visit."

One of the latest public figures to openly criticise the visit was Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, a respected peer and barrister specialising in human rights and civil liberties.

Writing in the letters section of the Times, she warned that Sisi had "corrupted the justice system and debased the rule of law so that mass trials of swift duration have been held and the death penalty passed on whole lists of people, who were simply employed in the last government. This has included one young woman who was tried in absentia while undertaking a Masters degree at Oxford, and now lives here under the threat of a death sentence."

"To entertain General Sisi at this time is an affront to British values. I urge the government to withdraw its invitation."

A number of demonstrations were set to take place during his visit, including one in support of Sisi on Thursday.

The UK is the number one non-Arab investment partner in Egypt and the visit by the president has been seen as a means to ensure the continuation of these ties.

Andrew Smith, from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said that the UK had initially been involved in a process of "arms control by embarrassment" and had suspended 49 arms export licenses to Egypt following the beginning of the government crackdown that has so far reportedly left over 40,000 people in prison and thousands dead. However, once the issue had dropped out of the media headlights, the suspensions were mostly lifted.

"I think we would all agree that selling the means to kill to Sisi is completely wrong, selling arms to a dictator who’s locking up journalists, who’s responsible for executing and killing large numbers of people," he said.

"Having said that, when it comes to other aspects of trade there’s a debate to be had - I think with any call for a boycott there will be differing views, probably around this table as well."

Oborne added that support for Sisi and the stalled Jenkins Report conducted into the activities and ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood - now banned as a terrorist organisation in Egypt - were clear signs that pressure had been applied by the UK's allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“This government and the New Labour government that preceded it have a record of supporting Gulf dictatorships against democratic Islam," he said. "It’s been a pattern of behaviour by British governments and so I do very much see the warm attitude of British governments as being part of a judgment that it is better to have a bloodthirsty autocrat in power rather than an elected government.”