On March 17 a delegation of EU leaders visited Cairo and announced that the EU Commission had decided to provide Egypt with finance totaling $8.1 billion (some 32 billion shekels) over the three years 2024 – 2027.  Amidst the flurry of self-congratulatory statements, neither side specified what one particular tranche of the package was for.

That Egypt needs the money, it goes without saying. The country has been in economic difficulties for years. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine made matters worse.  The country relied heavily on wheat imports from both Russia and Ukraine, and food prices increased by more than 70%.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has supported the Egyptian government over the past 8 years with loans, has demanded strict financial controls.  Government action taken to meet IMF conditions, such as the removal of bread and fuel subsidies, new value-added taxes, and an increase in metro fares, aroused public opposition. 

In August 2023 inflation in Egypt hit a record year-on-year high of just under 40%, while the Egyptian pound was losing value hand over fist.  Over 2023 the cost of a US dollar hovered around 30 Egyptian pounds. At the beginning of March 2024 it was 70 pounds. 

Then Egypt’s fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better.  Three recent announcements in quick succession have dissipated the financial gloom. 

Impressed with the steps Egypt has taken to tighten the economy, and after Cairo agreed to further financial reforms including a flexible exchange rate and raised interest rates, on March 6 the IMF agreed to a $5 billion increase in the current $3 billion loan agreement.

Then, on March 17 came the announcement from the EU of its $8.1 billion package, spread over three years. Finally, and apparently out of the blue, on March 17 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced it would inject $35 billion into Egypt over two months.

There is no doubt that this $48 billion windfall will go a long way toward clearing the economy’s dollar shortage and eliminating any near-term risk of default.  

The financial bonus from the UAE is by way of investment in the development of Ras El-Hikma, a 170 million-square-meter peninsula, stretching over some 50 kilometers of white-sand beaches along Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline.  The project, managed by an Emirati organization, aims to transform Ras El-Hikma into a luxury tourist destination coupled with a financial center and a free zone.  

The EU financial package is less explicit in its objective.

European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen was joined by the leaders of Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and Italy to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the signing ceremony.  The deal, both sides agree, lifts the EU’s relationship with Egypt to a “strategic partnership” aimed at boosting cooperation in renewable energy, trade, and security.  The financial package specifies five billion euros in loans, 1.8 billion euros in investment, and hundreds of millions for “bilateral projects”.  

In their official statements following the announcement, neither side mentioned the word “migrants”.  However one official attached to the EU Commission told Radio France Internationale that part of the tranche allocated to “bilateral projects” is specifically earmarked to stem irregular migrant flows to the EU bloc. In 2023 the EU’s border agency Frontex recorded nearly 158,000 migrant arrivals in Europe via the dangerous Mediterranean sea route, an increase of 50% on the previous year.  Migration was referred to briefly by Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni, who hailed the EU-Egypt accord as a chance to give “residents of Africa” a chance “not to emigrate” to Europe, while the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said: “We must prevent the opening of new migration routes and we will work very closely with Egypt to ensure that this will be achieved.” 

In negotiating this agreement, the EU Commission doubtless had in mind the rising popularity of right-wing parties in several EU nations, and the growth across Europe of anti-immigrant rhetoric.  It must also be aware of its own failure to cope effectively with the flow of uncontrolled migration into Europe from Africa.

Statistics for 2023 from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) show migrants setting out into the Mediterranean from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt – that is, the entire stretch of the north African coastline, with the sole exception of Morocco.  By far the most favoured destination was Italy, but many thousands landed also in Spain, Greece, Cyprus and even Malta – all EU countries.  The EU Commission’s concern is understandable.  

Egypt insists that migrant boats have not sailed from its coast in recent years, yet Egyptians still arrive by sea in Europe, mostly in Italy, via Libya or Tunisia.  Recently these numbers have increased.  There are thousands of Egyptians currently in Libya, waiting for transport to Italy, and Libya has taken to shipping them back to Egypt in their hundreds.   This Libya-Italy route remains open despite deals already concluded by the EU in northern Africa, notably with Libya, Tunisia and Mauritania, aimed at reducing the uncontrolled flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.  The new agreement with Egypt is intended to augment those deals and make them more effective.

 There is always another point of view. Some interests do not see the current situation as an emergency.  Human Rights groups strongly condemned the EU’s deals with authoritarian governments, among which they include Egypt.  Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized what it labels “the EU’s cash-for-migration-control approach” which, it said, “strengthens authoritarian rulers while betraying human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and activists whose work involves great personal risk.”

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the IOM, makes a different point.  He has said the  2023 migrant numbers were a far cry from those recorded in 2015 when more than a million people reached European shores via the Mediterranean.

“There is no real emergency,” Di Giacomo is reported as saying. “They are very manageable figures, and more should be done to give people who arrive by sea access to a system of protection.”

Egypt however, its immediate financial crisis averted, is no doubt grateful that the EU sees things rather differently.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com. Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."