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Egypt is witnessing a change that might considerably affect its relations with its European neighbours. While EU’s impact on the Middle East and North Africa is minimal in comparison to that of the United States, it is still significant, in the light of January uprising, to investigate the political and economic importance of Egypt in the region and the European-Egyptian relations by going through a brief historical view of Egypt’s policy toward the EU.
Since twenty years till now, no popular uprising has been met with so unanimous global sympathy as that in Egypt at the beginning of 2011. For nearly two months Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the focus of the so-called “Arab democratisation process”, ignited by an uprising in North Africa causing the fall of Tunisia’s dictator Ben Ali. The impact of Egypt’s success or failure in democratisation endeavours is significant for the region’s future. Egypt occupies a special geo-strategic place. Being at the crossroad between two continents with most numerous Arab population and strongest Arab and African armed forces and the first Arab country to have recognised the State of Israel is exceptional in the region. Cairo plays an extraordinary role in the Middle East peace process. No lasting peace in the region can be achieved without Egypt’s active and benevolent participation. Any major political move by any major power either in the Eastern Mediterranean or in Persian/Arabian Gulf has to be coordinated with its leadership.
“Egypt has been an important ally to the West. Its sheer size in population and geographically, its location and its economic and political strengths makes it obvious that one has to establish good economic and political relations with Egypt in order to gain and preserve influence in Northern Africa, the Middle East and the Arab World,” wrote Christoph Blepp in his book “The Awakening of Egypt: The correlation between the Egyptian revolution and the educational indicators” in 2011.
Moreover, Egypt is a key-trading partner to the EU according to the House of Commons’ 34th Report of Session 2010-12 “Egypt remains a key trading partner to the EU. Despite the economy gaining momentum during 2010, the unrest during the revolution brought it to a standstill”, which makes the economy in the area vulnerable and subject to lots of risks. This obviously highlights Egypt’s significant economic role in the Middle East. However, Egypt is still dependent on the EU aid and it is considered one of the largest recipients of help from the EU in the Mediterranean region.
Political parties, which are now sixty according to The Egyptian Cabinet of Information and Design Support Center, have the freedom to promote their programs and actually contribute to the political landscape in Egypt. Some of those parties have existed before the revolution such as the secular National Progressive Unionist Party (7-7-1977), and some of them emerged after the revolution such as the conservative Islamic Freedom and Justice Party (21-3-2011) supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them were dissolved such as the Liberal National Democratic Party (NDP), which was supported by Egyptian military, Mubarak, and western and Arab countries.
According to Egypt’s state information service, Egypt has built its own policy history with the EU in general and with each member state on different levels. After 1952 revolution, Egypt kept its mutual relations and interests with several European countries despite of the fact that Egypt’s Foreign Policy, at that time, was more focused on supporting national liberation movements against the colonial powers and it was one of the founders of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
In the 70s, Egypt was looking forward to the West digesting the importance of the European dimension, and therefore, a cooperation treaty between Egypt and European Community (EC) was signed and became effective in 1977. This was a first step in the right direction to establish mutual cooperative relations with the European community.
After the assassination of the former President Anwar Sadat, Mubarak took power in 1981. The European Bloc attracted the Egyptian foreign policy prompted by two main reasons: 1) to grasp the European attention to support the economical development efforts in Egypt. Economical issues represented the spinal cord for relationships between Europe and Egypt. Mubarak frequently visited European countries to establish an incrementally growing cooperation, which resulted with several agreements on debt re-scheduling in the framework of the joint statement of Paris Club in 1992. According to this re-scheduling, a reduction of 50% of the value of debt was passed. 2) Pushing the European countries to play a more robust role in the Middle East peace process.
The state of Egyptian current relations to the EU matter and so does history. It is obvious that all governmental and non-governmental bodies as well as political parties have re-adjusted their policies after January 25 to allegedly embark a democratisation process. While Egypt is important as a militaristic and political power in the region, its relations with the EU are expected to be fluctuating based on EU’s priority of stability and security measures in the Middle East and North Africa on one hand and the people movement in Egypt which perceives the EU a strong political and economic actor supported a repressive regime on the expense of Egyptians.