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UK supports 'security through prosperity' in Egypt, as EU attacks rights abuses

EU urges Egypt to release prisoners of conscience 'immediately'
President Sisi points to diggers in the background of his $4 bn mega-project for New Suez Canal (AFP)

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi met with British ministers and businessmen on Thursday, calling on UK companies to increase their investment with an eye to boosting Egypt’s security.

Sisi met representatives of “large British companies,” according to Egyptian state-owned daily al-Ahram, as well as Tobias Ellwood, minister for the Middle East and North Africa at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

During the meeting, Egypt’s Sisi stressed his commitment to fighting militancy and "extremist thought", telling British officials the people of Egypt reject terrorism.

“The stability of the country has a direct impact on the stability of the region,” Sisi told the trade delegation.

Sisi also used the meet to stress the importance of foreign investment in stabilising both the economic and the political situation.

“The President called on British companies to increase their investments in Egypt, due to the positive impact this will have on pushing economic development in the country and aiding regional stability”.

The UK’s Tobias Ellwood reflected this message, saying reform is a “key to success”.

As part of the visit, Ellwood joined other representatives to become the first delegation to visit the New Suez Canal, a new mega-project aimed at boosting Egypt’s industrial activity.

Translation: The British trade delegation is the first non-Egyptian team to sail on the New Suez Canal

The British ambassador to Egypt, John Casson, who was appointed two weeks after Sisi was sworn in as President last June, was also part of the delegation.

The British embassy in Cairo reopened last month after being closed due to undisclosed security issues.

“I am pleased that the British Embassy in Cairo has today resumed public services in full,” said UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on the reopening.

“Britain and Egypt have…essential commercial links and cooperate closely in a number of areas”.

Britain has invested over $5 billion in Egypt over the past year, with major UK-linked companies including security firm G4S looking to benefit from a new investment law that aims to cut down on the bureaucracy surrounding foreign investment.

The UK government has come under fire over its continuing arms sales to Egypt, where human rights organisations frequently warn of violations - in 2013-2014, the UK sold almost $77 million worth of arms to Egypt, including assault rifles and components for military aircraft.

Egypt has been rocked by numerous domestic militant attacks in recent months, and has launched a huge campaign to crack down on militancy in the restive Sinai Peninsula.

The unrest has forced a stark drop in tourism, which used to contribute more than 11 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP). In the first quarter of 2014 tourism plummeted by 32 percent year on year, during what is traditionally the holiday high season.

Foreign economic support, along with an unpopular cut to government subsidies last July, has led to some improvements in the Egyptian economy, according to David Butter, an associate fellow in the MENA programme at UK-based policy institute Chatham House.

“The government has been able to mobilise quite significant support from the Gulf,” Butter explained.

“Unemployment has stabilised, and the economy is starting to show some growth”.

However, analysts say the economy is not out of the woods yet – a crisis caused by nationwide fuel shortages is causing public anger, and on Friday the country's Council of Ministers promised to find a solution to the months-long predicament within 48 hours.

European Parliament criticises Egypt rights abuses

As the UK trade delegation met with Egyptian officials on Thursday, members of the European parliament passed a motion calling for the “immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience” in Egypt.

The motion, drafted by a coalition of German centre-right politicians at the European Parliament, acknowledges the “difficult political challenges” Egypt has faced since 2011, but highlighted the “harsh and controversial punishments [imposed] on political dissidents”.

The motion also called for the release of 167 detained lawmakers who were elected in 2011.

A crackdown on political opposition in Egypt has seen tens of thousands arrested, and mass death sentences approved for people accused of belonging to the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood.

Trials of civilians in military courts, recently approved for anyone suspected of involvement in a terrorism case, has attracted criticism, with Human Rights Watch accusing Sisi of “taking Egypt in the wrong direction”.

Egypt has hit back in the wake of the European Parliament’s vote, which will not necessarily mean a shift in policy for the organisation.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the decision was based on “misinformation which reflects the lack of awareness of the reality of the situation in Egypt”.

The ministry said the European Parliament’s approach “does not serve the support of the bilateral relations between Egypt and the European Union”.

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