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.
Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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