Britain has struck a new special relationship with the military rulers of Egypt which is as deep as it is worrying. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the British invasion of Egypt - known in polite circles as the 'Suez crisis' - Britons should reflect on their government's relationship with this key Middle Eastern country.
Since the military coup of July 2013 that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected government, Egypt under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has once again become a nasty, repressive regime. Torture, deaths in detention, forced disappearances, restrictions on civil society, the imprisonment of journalists and restrictions on freedom of expression, are now all common. Up to 40,000 Egyptians have been arrested by the regime since July 2013, mainly for involvement in demonstrations or opposition political activities. Some 1,000 people were killed during violence in July and August 2013 when the new regime conducted clearing operations to remove Muslim Brotherhood protesters from sit-ins in Cairo.
Yet for Britain, this all represents a new opportunity. Last month Prime Minister Theresa May spoke with el-Sisi and 'discussed a new chapter in bilateral relations between the UK and Egypt', according to the government press release. This is no under-statement since it follows a series of extraordinary meetings and extreme British apologias for the nature of the Egyptian regime.
In August 2015, when Defence Secretary Michael Fallon paid one of several recent visits to Egypt, the government stated that 'during his visit Mr Fallon discussed Britain's support for security and for economic progress and democracy in Egypt, as a vital element of restoring stability in the region'. These words are code and surely well-understood on both sides: what was meant was that 'Mr Fallon discussed Britain's support for the pro-Western regime ('security') and for British commercial interests ('economic progress') and authoritarianism ('democracy') as a vital element of maintaining repression ('stability') in the region'.
The following month, September 2015, Fallon entertained the head of Egypt's military, General Mahmoud Hegazy, in London, while the government reported that 'with growing instability in the region it more important than ever that the UK cements the already strong ties with Egypt'.
In November last year, relations deepened still further. El-Sisi was allowed by the government to visit Britain while then Prime Minister David Cameron said he was 'delighted to welcome president Sisi to Downing Street' and that Egypt was a 'vital partner for us' for economic and security ties. El-Sisi for his part noted that the UK was a 'friendly country'. Cameron gave vague mention of the 'need for political progress in Egypt' but otherwise didn't upset his visitor by any comments on just what was happening back home.
The day following the meeting between the two leaders, Michael Fallon met el-Sisi to discuss military cooperation while then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond signed a memorandum of understanding with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry. This will 'launch a new stage in our British-Egyptian partnership for stability and reform' involving 'a regular strategic dialogue'. The government says that 'the UK enjoys a strong security partnership with Egypt' and holds regular discussions with the Egyptian military. Arms continue to flow the regime: in 2015 the UK approved £84m worth of military equipment to Egypt, including guns and ammunition. Britain is also forming a 'small military operations team' in Egypt to improve combatting Islamic State in Libya.
The primary reason for British backing of el-Sisi is that the regime's repressive rule is creating good conditions for furthering British investment. Britain has long been the largest investor in Egypt, with deals worth over $5 billion, but 'we are hungry for more', British ambassador John Casson has said. In July 2016, a UK trade envoy to Egypt, the MP Jeffrey Donaldson, and the head of UK Export Finance, Louis Taylor, visited Cairo to discuss expanding trade and investment ties. Donaldson said that 'the past few months have seen many enquiries from British companies wishing to do business in Egypt and their interest highlights the significant opportunities that are available across a range of Egyptian commercial sectors'. Louis Taylor pointed out that his organisation, which is the UK's export credit agency, had finance available for projects in Egypt worth 'hundreds of millions' - in other words, the British taxpayer will subsidise British companies investing under the el-Sisi regime.
This visit followed a trade delegation to Egypt headed by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in March 2015, accompanied by big investors such as BP, Vodafone, Barclays and BG Group. The visit heralded the major prize for the British - the signing of a massive $12 billion investment deal by BP for an oil and gas project in the West Nile Delta offshore Egypt. The agreement is the single largest investment deal in Egypt's history. At the same time, Hammond 'met President el-Sisi to discuss a range of issues, including regional security and the global coalition's fight against ISIL'.
The Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood represented a serious obstacle to this oil and gas deal. The BP-led consortium had been haggling over the terms for the West Nile project for years and was seeking direct ownership over the resources and accrual of 100 per cent of the profits. The Morsi government had thrown a spanner in the works, with some leading figures objecting to BP's demands. Indeed, by mid-2013, just weeks before the coup, the Morsi government was engaged in talks with BP demanding far better terms. El-Sisi's seizure of power changed all that. The new deal under the military regime now offers BP exceedingly generous terms and, most importantly, has moved Egypt away from a long-used production-sharing model in which companies and countries typically split profit 20:80, to a tax royalty scheme that essentially privatises Egypt's gas sector and hands control and oversight of natural resources to private companies.
These deals have been signed while Whitehall has been fully aware that repression in Egypt has increased every year since el-Sisi seized power. In 2013, 'the human rights situation in Egypt deteriorated', the Foreign Office said in April 2014. In 2014, it noted that 'the human rights situation in Egypt remained poor and deteriorated in some areas, particularly with regards to freedom of expression and association'. More recently, the Foreign Office's Human Rights Report for 2016 notes that 'in 2015, reports of torture, police brutality and forced disappearances increased' and that 'restrictions on freedom of expression also increased'.
Despite this knowledge, in August 2015, Michael Fallon offered a stunning apologia for repression by writing in an Egyptian newspaper that 'Egyptians have rejected both extremism and authoritarianism'. Meanwhile, our man in Cairo, Britain's ambassador John Casson, has apparently convinced himself that Egyptians 'are building a more stable, more prosperous and more democratic country'. Casson was even quoted in the Egyptian media in June 2015 of approving of Egypt's 'tough security measures'. Whitehall does not support repressive regimes despite their being repressive but precisely because they are repressive and promote a pro-Western foreign policy and provide an attractive investment climate.
Britain has sometimes gone through the motions on protesting at Egypt's lack of human rights under el-Sisi, such as by 'expressing concern' at the Egyptian Court's passing of 183 death sentences in 2014. Nothing, however, has been allowed to upset military and commercial relations. Witness the Foreign Office's embarrassing analysis of el-Sisi's seizure of power. It notes that el-Sisi was 'elected' to power in May 2014 with 96 per cent of the vote (a proportion that would have impressed Stalin), which 'in some respects... fell short of compliance with the principles set out in... international standards for democratic elections'. Indeed.
Equally, the silence on the part of the British media, especially the BBC, on this level of support for repression is stunning. While everyone knows of China's crackdown on Tiananmen square in 1989 which killed hundreds of people, perhaps up to 2,000, how many people are aware of the Egyptian security forces killing of 817 people in Rab'a al-Adawiya Square in Cairo in August 2014? The difference, of course, is that one was perpetrated by an official enemy, the other by an official friend. If these media simply did their job, and reported what their government is doing, it is likely that British governments would not be able to get away with lending their support to tinpot dictators around the world.