You and I discussed here last year about Western arms supplies to human rights violators, namely from the Netherlands to Egypt. It concerned radar equipment for the Egyptian navy. The then ministers Blok and Kaag saw no problem in this, arguing, among other things, that the Egyptian government violates human rights, but the navy does not. Dutch peace and human rights organizations went to court, which is why I come back to you today: they backed down there last week. Indeed, serious human rights situation, according to the Hague summary judge, but in short, he thought that the Dutch government is carefully monitoring the situation. And another argument: other EU countries are not currently waiving comparable deliveries either.
Other EU countries! Everyone loves Egypt’s President Sisi. Although he leads a large and poor country, he always has enough money to buy many expensive weapons. Egypt is one of the largest buyers of German weapons. Italy has continued to supply weapons in the hands of the Egyptian security service even after the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni in 2016. What does it matter, those human rights. With Sisi by his side, President Macron openly declared last year that arms supplies take precedence over human rights. The fight against terrorism has priority.
That is interesting, because who are the terrorists against whom Sisi is fighting? Yes, jihadists in Sinai, but increasingly peaceful political activists and basically anyone who for one reason or another has been disgraced by the authorities are being branded as terrorists and persecuted (not just in Egypt, by the way, but more on that later). To that end, Sisi has broad anti-terrorism laws, which he passed last year tighten up again.
Let me give you as an example two businessmen, Safwan Thabet (75) and his son Seif (40), who have been incarcerated since December 2020 (Safwan) and February this year (Seif) on charges of ‘terrorist financing, undermining the national economy and joining an illegal organization”. Safwan’s wife has also been charged with spreading false news and being a member of a terrorist group after complaining on social media about the treatment of her husband and son.
What is this about? Safwan Thabet is the grandson of a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, and although his family assures him that he himself has nothing to do with the Brotherhood, that is no advertisement in Sisi’s Egypt. But according to, among other things Amnesty International on Human Rights Watch in fact, it’s their company, Juhayna Food Industry, which has grown up in milk products and juices. The Thabets were arrested when they refused to give up their shares in Juhayna to the state. According to various sources for the benefit of the army, which has also become interested in food production.
The two men are being held in solitary confinement and treated badly, human rights groups said. Seif Thabet does not get enough food and clothing; his father no medical care.
Would not supplying that radar help the Thabets? Or the other 60,000 or so political prisoners? Not right away, of course, I’m not naive. But if everyone with an eye on the competition and the trade balance continues to sell Sisi weapons, he certainly has no reason to change anything.
Caroline Roelants is a Middle East expert and separates the facts from the hype here every week.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 29, 2021