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.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war