President el-Sisi Is Not Welcome in Britain

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a military ceremony in the courtyard of the Invalides in Paris, November 26, 2014. Charles Platiau/Reuters

This week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi arrives in London for high-level meetings and photo opportunities at Downing Street. His visit, which comes at the invitation of the U.K. government, is the latest step in his regime's bid for international acceptance and legitimacy.

These sorts of visits count for a lot on the world stage and the images of el-Sisii rubbing shoulders with Prime Minister David Cameron will be used to project an image of the Egyptian president as a modernizer and reformer. They will also be used to quash his critics and to counter and whitewash the appalling human rights record of his autocratic regime.

El-Sissi began his rule with an undemocratic military coup and, since then, has governed by fear, intimidation and oppression. Following the overthrow of the government of Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian military, which el-Sisi led in his capacity as then-defence minister, has murdered over 1,000 activists and detained thousands more.

Research shows that almost three-quarters of Egyptians blame el-Sisi for the deaths, but so far the Egyptian government and the International Criminal Court have refused to investigate them.

The killings paved the way for what Amnesty International has described as "a surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody." This was followed by widespread accusations of torture, the shutting down of critical media outlets and a corrupt 'election' which saw el-Sissi 'winning' the presidency with over 96 percent of the vote.

It is against this backdrop that the U.K. government has rolled out the red carpet and welcomed el-Sisi.

The tone of the visit will be a far cry from 2013 when, following the military coup, Cameron condemned the overthrow and called for a "genuine democratic transition" to take place. He wasn't the only one, and the tough talk was followed by the announcement of an EU arms embargo. Unfortunately, and somewhat predictably, this proved to be a lot weaker than the lofty rhetoric suggested.

The embargo called for member states to suspend licences for any arms that might be used for internal repression and to re-assess export licences for military equipment and review all of their security assistance to Egypt. However, the so-called embargo was not legally binding and was left open to the interpretation of individual states. It provided no time limits on the restrictions, and nor did it have any clear definitions for what it meant by the terms 'suspension' or 'equipment' which could be used for 'internal repression.'

Inevitably, the embargo was ignored, with arms sales resuming almost as soon as the attacks were out of the media (a case of what some activists refer to as "arms control by embarrassment.") The record of the U.K. government provides the perfect example of how weak and ineffective it was. In August 2013, the U.K. suspended 49 licences for arms to Egypt. However, only two months later, 24 of these suspensions were lifted, with only seven being fully revoked and arms sales resuming almost straight away.

The rhetoric about human rights may have continued, but actions speak louder than words. Since the coup, the U.K. has licensed over 85 million ($130.7 million) worth of military exports to Egypt, including more than 40 million ($61.5 million) worth of components for military combat vehicles to be used in counter insurgency operations in Sinai and a further 25 million ($38.4 million) of targeting equipment.

A Egyptian military delegation attended the 2016 Security and Policing arms fair, co-organized by the Home Office, at the invitation of the U.K. government. A Freedom of Information request from Campaign Against Arms Trade reveals that while there, the Egyptian delegates met with representatives of UKTI DSO—the civil service body responsible for promoting arms exports. Similarly, Egypt was also invited to the DSEI arms fair in London this September, which was attended by el-Sissi's chief of staff who was granted temporary diplomatic immunity.

It may be back to business as usual for the politicians and the arms manufacturers, but nothing has changed for people in Egypt.

The repression has continued unabated, with local campaign groups describing el-Sisi's first year in charge as "the worst in terms of human rights violations since 1993." This has only continued over recent months, with the detention of journalists and the recent announcement of new 'anti-terror' legislation, which Human Rights Watch has described as "a big step toward enshrining a permanent state of emergency."

Will the Prime Minister take the time to think of the families of those massacred by el-Sisi's regime or of the journalists languishing in Egyptian prisons while he poses for photos? Will he stop to think back to just two years ago, when he called for human rights and democracy in Egypt?

Ultimately politics is about choices. It is impossible to show support and solidarity for the people of Egypt while simultaneously arming and supporting the tyrannical regime that is oppressing them. The first step has to be an end to arms sales to the regime and an end to the political support bolstering it.

As long as el-Sisi enjoys the political and military support of some of the most powerful Western nations, little will change. The uprisings of 2011 were fuelled by optimism and a desire for human rights and democracy. This desire has not gone away, but it is being suppressed by a cruel, authoritarian government, and ignored by those that are bolstering its rule and propping it up.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade.