The UK must do more to stand up for democracy in Egypt

All existing British and EU aid and support for Egypt should be placed under urgent review.

The world has watched the rising death toll in Egypt this week with horror and foreboding. The UN Security Council has already met and EU foreign ministers are due to meet next week but the question remains what practical steps the international community can take to help stop the killing and secure stability and democracy.

In my view, it is vital that the international community does more to demonstrate to the Egyptian generals that they cannot act with impunity.
Although it is true that the UK's influence on the situation is limited, the fact that we can't do everything does not mean we shouldn't do anything.

First, the UK government must review all existing arms export licenses that have been issued to Egypt. The UK Consolidated Criteria prevent the UK from granting licenses in cases where goods exported could be used for internal repression. Given recent developments in Cairo, in particular in the last 72 hours, the UK government now has a responsibility to make clear that all export licences previously granted continue to meet this criteria and review existing licences with this standard in mind.

Second, all existing British and EU aid and support for Egypt must be placed under urgent review. This week I urged the UK government to seek an immediate meeting of EU foreign ministers and I welcome the decision to hold such a meeting next Monday. I hope foreign ministers gathered there will agree to review all existing support provided directly to the Egyptian authorities. European co-operation with Egypt should not continue as normal when civilians are being killed and basic rights are being undermined.

Third, the UK government must - of course - keep travel advice for Egypt under constant review given the dangerous and deadly scenes in Cairo. I have seen for myself, when I was an FCO Minister, the skill and care with which the department's officials conduct such reviews and that system needs to be fully operational in light of the potential risks for British citizens in the country in the coming days.

The US administration remains a key player in the region. Earlier this week I made clear my view that the time has now come for the UK government to encourage the US administration to suspend its $1.3bn military aid package to Egypt as the US government's review of its relationship with Egypt continues. So I welcome the news that President Obama has now announced that the US will cancel the joint military exercise with Egypt "Operation Bright Star".

The primary responsibility for restoring calm and stability within Egypt rests, however, with the interim Egyptian government. The UK government should continue to urge them to suspend the State of Emergency and commit now to a fixed timetable for holding new elections.

For a better future - not just for Egypt but for the whole Middle East - it is vital that those people who want to express their political support for Islamic parties continue to believe there is a viable democratic path open to them. That democratic path rejects the hateful ideology of Al-Qaeda that claims only violence can achieve change. So the stakes are high. The risks remain real. And the responsibility on the international community to speak up for stability and democracy is clear.

Egyptian military armored vehicles stand guard at a checkpoint on the edge of Tahrir Square by the Egyptian Museum on August 16, 2013 in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.