by Sofian Philip Naceur
- 1 Basic Information and Brief Characterization
- 2 Economy and Government
- 3 Migratory Movements
- 4 EU projects in Egypt and Egyptian Border Protection Measures
- 5 What role do (which) NGOs play?
- 6 Economic interests – who will benefit?
- 7 Who is losing?
- 8 What resistance is there?
- 9 Materials and sources
- 10 Footnotes
Basic Information and Brief Characterization
With 101 million inhabitants (as of November 2019), Egypt is the most populous Arab country and the third largest country in Africa after Nigeria and Ethiopia in terms of absolute population. 95% of the population inhabits only five percent of Egypt’s land area. With the exception of the Nile Delta, the banks of the Nile, and a few oases, the country consists largely of barren desert. Agricultural land is scarce. Informal settlement construction on agricultural land, the salinization of coastal regions, and inefficient irrigation channels have all also led to a decline in arable land, forcing the country (already heavily dependent on food imports) to increasingly import agricultural products, particularly wheat. The government has attempted to create additional agricultural land in the desert by building irrigation channels since the 1970s, but such projects have so far failed to meet expectations.
Egypt obtains 95% of its water from the Nile and suffers from pronounced water shortages. Population growth in the country has led to an increasing demand for water, and Egypt’s water supply is additionally threatened by growing demand from countries along the southern Nile basin and the construction of a mega dam in Ethiopia downstream the Blue Nile.
Egypt’s population increases by approximately two million people each year. The Cairo metropolitan area – the largest metropolitan area in Africa – comprises the provinces of Cairo, Giza, and Qalyubia and is home to over 28 million inhabitants (as of 2020). As a result of influx from rural regions, especially from Upper Egypt, an additional 500,000 people arrive in the city each year. Informal settlements and neighborhoods, particularly in the outskirts of Giza, are also growing at a breathtaking pace. The government often connects these districts to electricity, water, and sewage networks only years after their establishment. The chronically overloaded and overcrowded local transportation networks (subway and buses) are expanded very slowly and have been unable to keep pace with demand for decades.
Sunni Muslims make up approximately 85% of the population, while around 15% are Orthodox Coptic Christians (no adequate information exists on the proportion of Christians amongst the total population, estimates vary between 10 and 20%). There are no precise figures on the foreign population living in the country, only rough estimates. However, it is assumed that there are around five to eight million foreigners in Egypt. Two to four million people have emigrated to Egypt from Sudan alone over the past few decades.
Economy and Government
Egypt is formally a presidential republic, but in fact currently a hybrid between a military dictatorship and an authoritarian police state. After the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and the overthrow of long-term dictator Hosni Mubarak, the country experienced a period of political change and underwent a short-lived democratic transition process. However, this process was abruptly interrupted in July 2013 by a bloody military coup against Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected ex-president who had emerged from the ranks of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Political freedoms such as freedom of expression, assembly, or the press, as well as the activities of opposition and civil society forces, were massively restricted once again only 30 months after the 25 January Revolution. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who has been in office since 2014, pushed for the coup against Morsi and his government in the name of the military in July 2013 – at that time Egypt’s Minister of Defense – and has ever since ruled the country with an iron fist. Since Al-Sisi’s takeover, the authorities’ despotism, police violence, systematic torture, and ill-treatment in police custody and in prisons (often with fatal consequences), as well as massive restrictions of civil liberties, have become part of everyday life for citizens, migrants, and refugees alike.
The country has stabilized politically under Al-Sisi, but the price for this stability has been high. Al-Sisi has installed a dictatorial regime that far outshines even Mubarak’s almost 30 years of authoritarian rule. Egypt has repeatedly cooperated closely with the regimes in China and Sudan in recent years, taking action against opposition figures from both countries living in Egypt. On behalf of Khartoum, the Egyptian security apparatus has repeatedly put pressure on Sudanese opposition figures and deported Sudanese activists to Sudan. In coordination with Chinese authorities, Egypt’s domestic intelligence agency has tracked down, arrested, and interrogated Uyghur students from western China and deported some of them to China.
Since its 1979 peace agreement with Israel, Egypt has been the world’s second largest recipient of US military aid, receiving up to $1.5 billion per year. This includes equipment and weapons for the Air Force, armored vehicles and tanks, as well as training for Egyptian officers. Egypt has been one of the most important allies of the United States in the Middle East since 1979. The country also maintains close ties with the U.S. allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Under Al-Sisi, however, Egypt has aimed at diversifying its foreign and security policy, using its strategic location (Suez Canal, front line in the Middle East conflict, military power in the Red Sea, transit country for migrants) to reduce its economic and military dependence on the United States. This is why Al-Sisi has substantially increased arms and equipment purchases from Europe and Russia, and has cooperated more closely on security matters with Moscow, and on economic matters, with China, which has leased large industrial and port areas along the Suez Canal and on the Red Sea as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, thereby massively expanding its economic presence in Egypt.
Economically, the country suffers from glaring structural weaknesses and is dependent on external aid such as credit programs and rent-seeking, including US military aid and the financial aid that has been provided by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states since the late 1970s (Saudi Arabia and the UAE transferred around 30 billion US dollars to Egypt between 2013 and 2016). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also signed several extensive loan programs with Egypt since the 1980s, most recently a conditional three-year loan package of $12 billion in 2016 and two more loan programs in early 2020 linked to the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The social and socio-economic situation of large sections of the population has become increasingly tense since the economic crisis worsened in 2016. While gated communities for the upper and middle classes are steadily expanding, especially in eastern Cairo, affordable housing for low-income strata of society is scarce. Social housing programs run by the state are lagging far behind demand. As of 2019, 32.5% of the population lived below the poverty line (an increase of five percent since 2015). Due to the weakness of the formal economy, several million people sustain themselves by working as day laborers in Egypt’s informal economy, which is estimated to comprise around 50% of economic output. The state’s education and health sectors are chronically underfunded and, particularly in rural regions, are hardly or only insufficiently developed.
Egypt’s military is now an inside state and an independent economic power that, according to the constitution, is not subject to parliamentary control and cannot be held accountable by the State’s President or the government. The Ministry of Military Production maintains dozens of factories that manufacture not only equipment and armaments, but also civilian goods such as air conditioners and food. The military economy’s share in Egypt’s economic output was estimated at 25% to 40% before 2011. Since Al-Sisi’s takeover, the army has massively expanded its economic activities, which include import and export monopolies. While the General Intelligence Service (GIS), the Egyptian foreign intelligence agency, has bought and built up a veritable media empire (TV channels, newspapers, and TV production companies), the security apparatus controls the mobile operator We, operates private schools and universities, as well as supermarket chains, cement factories, construction companies, and bakeries that are tax-exempted and thus have a major competitive advantage over private companies. The profits of many companies controlled by the security apparatus do not flow into the state budget, instead often disappearing into slush funds or the pockets of high-ranking state or military officials.
Egypt is a country of immigration, emigration, and transit for migrants. It is a central transit or immigration country for people from East Africa and Yemen due to its geographical location. The foreign population living in Egypt is estimated at more than five million people (other estimates range up to eight million). Two to four million of them come from Sudan and South Sudan. Other important countries of origin are Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Indonesia, China, and Syria. Many migrants and refugees have successively migrated to Egypt over the past decades and have settled in the country as a result of job opportunities in the informal economy and the anonymity of major cities. Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most important Sunni theological college in the Islamic world, is another magnet for immigration, as theologians from all over the world are trained here.
The Egyptian constitution of 2014 explicitly grants foreigners the right to apply for asylum, yet Egypt lacks corresponding legal regulations or recognition procedures. In fact, the UNHCR is the only point of contact for refugees to apply for protection status, support, or relocation. In July 2019, 249,449 people recognized as refugees by the UNHCR lived in Egypt, 95,455 of them were children. 131,433 of these refugees, more than half, were Syrians, and 44,260 came from Sudan (other important countries of origin for recognized refugees are Eritrea, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen). The UNHCR office in Egypt is chronically understaffed. Waiting periods of over a year, or even over 18 months, for registration or refugee status determination interviews are common. This is not the only reason why the UNHCR in Egypt has repeatedly been targeted by criticism from observers and those affected.
In 2005, massive protests by Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers against the refugee recognition practices and lack of assistance from UNHCR were staged in Greater Cairo. A protest camp set up by several thousand people in Mohandeseen in Giza was violently dispersed by Egyptian security forces in late 2005, resulting in the deaths of at least 20 people. In response, the UNHCR moved its headquarters from the Mohandeseen district in Giza to a satellite city called ‘6th of October’. Between 2011 and 2013, several smaller protests by refugees and asylum seekers were organized against UNHCR’s misconduct and lack of support for refugees and asylum seekers. Since Al-Sisi’s takeover, however, such protest only occurred occasionally as they can have life-threatening consequences. In spite of this, several hundred Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers gathered in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Cairo in July 2019 and protested against insufficient support from the UN agency and long waiting times. Egyptian security forces violently cracked down on the demonstration and arrested between 40 and 90 protesters. The majority of them were released shortly afterwards, though five people remained in custody for several days before they were released.
In November 2020, the killing of a 14 year old Sudanese child in Giza’s 6th of October district by an Egyptian man (reportedly as a retaliation for a dispute over money with the child’s father) sparked widespread anger in the refugee community in the area. Protests were staged in front the UNHCR headquarter and the house of the deceased child’s family, calling for justice and help by the UN. Egyptian authorities violently cracked down on the protests, arresting at last 70 people. After most of the arrested have been released shortly after their incarceration, the remaining ten Sudanese in detention – including the child’s father – were released later that month.
Egyptian Labor Migration and Irregular Migration to Europe
Remittances from Egyptian migrant workers living abroad are often vital to their families’ survival and are also essential for the economy at large. According to the Egyptian state statistics agency CAPMAS, around 9.5 million Egyptians lived abroad in 2017, 6.2 million of them in the Gulf States, 1.6 million in North and South America, and 1.2 million in Europe. Remittances have increased substantially since the worsening of the economic crisis in 2016 and measured $25.5 billion in 2018 ($24.7 billion in 2017). These transfers, mostly in foreign currencies, are an important source of income for large parts of the population, and are also indispensable for the country’s foreign currency supply. In light of the tense socio-economic situation, parts of the middle class are now also dependent on remittances from their relatives living abroad. Inflation and the increasing cost of living have also increased the emigration of well-qualified workers.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians now work in Libya in the oil and gas sector or in the service sector (before 2011, estimates ranged between 330,000 and 1.5 million). Since the outbreak of the Libyan civil war, many have been forced to leave the country. The irregular migration of Egyptians to Europe, both from the Libyan and the Egyptian coast, has increased significantly for several years. The worsening of the social situation of large parts of the Egyptian population and the regime’s increasing repression against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as left-wing and liberal activists, human rights defenders, and opposition figures, have also caused regular and irregular emigration to flourish since 2013.
Irregular migrants leaving Egyptian waters almost exclusively headed towards Italy, in part because the country does not deport underage Egyptians. Between six and eight percent of irregular migrants arriving in Italy have been Egyptians for years, the majority of them minors. Due to the significant distance between Egypt and Italy, people who irregularly crossed the Mediterranean by boat had been forced to rely on smugglers as they use larger boats for irregular crossings. In contrast to Algeria and Tunisia, self-organized crossing attempts from the Egyptian coast have been an exception. Until 2016, well-organized smugglers operated mainly in the coastal provinces of Marsa Matrouh, Alexandria, Beheira, and Kafr El-Sheikh and maintained good contacts with Egyptian security forces to ensure, with bribes, that departures could run smoothly.
In the fall of 2016, a heavily overloaded fishing boat capsized near the small town of Rashid, east of Alexandria. At least 202 people died, however unofficially it is assumed that there were more than 300 victims. Immediately after this shipwreck, Egyptian authorities stepped up controls on the beaches and at sea and have since significantly restricted attempts of crossing the sea irregularly. EU-Egyptian cooperation on migration policy has also massively intensified ever since. After the Rashid disaster, Al-Sisi’s regime showed that it is able and willing to close the country’s coastal borders for irregular migration. As a result, only a few boats with migrants have set sail since 2017, and are intercepted almost without exception. The migration routes have since shifted back to Libya and the smugglers previously operating in Egypt’s Mediterranean provinces now concentrate on the transport of people across the land border to Libya. Over the past few years, Egyptian security authorities have repeatedly arrested Egyptian and foreign migrants attempting to enter Libya irregularly, but it is nevertheless assumed that individual security officers continue to benefit financially from the smuggling business into Libya.
Egypt: Transit Country for Migration from East Africa
Egypt remains an inevitable transit and immigration country for refugees from East Africa, especially those from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan, as well as Yemen. The sheer size of the Cairo and Alexandria metropolitan areas permits migrants to go underground and seek work in the informal economy. However, for immigrants without a residence permit, this work is typically poorly paid and associated with precarious working conditions. Racism and xenophobia are very widespread in the Egyptian society, and violent attacks, insults, and exploitation, particularly of women, are all everyday occurrences (without a residence permit, immigrants cannot turn to the authorities for complaints without risking arrest or even deportation). For these reasons, the everyday situation of migrants living in the country is often catastrophic.
Egypt systematically violates its obligations under the Geneva Convention, although the country has signed it. The state has outsourced asylum recognition procedures to the UNHCR and has to date consistently refused to introduce its own recognition procedures. The only points of contact for refugees are aid organizations, but their capacities are very limited. Refugees and migrants are consistently forced into illegality by the Egyptian authorities, because the state rarely issues residence permits or work permits. Support from one of the numerous aid organizations in the form of health or educational services is often linked to registration with UNHCR. Due to chronic understaffing of the UNHCR’s offices in Egypt, the waiting periods for appointments are so long that people are sometimes left on their own for months or even years. The Yellow Card, the document identifying individuals as UN-registered refugees or asylum seekers, long served as a form of legal protection against deportation, but in reality the Egyptian authorities currently treat official UNHCR documents with little respect. Recognized refugees have been deported to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. There have likewise been cases of Syrians being deported to Sudan and Lebanon.
In the past, refugees arrested while attempting to leave the country irregularly were not prosecuted for criminal offences. After spending a few days or weeks in detention they were mostly brought before the prosecutor, but there were no charges raised against them. After being screened by security bodies, they were usually released or deported. More recently, however, people apprehended at the Libyan border have faced criminal charges. The basis for these charges is the legal prohibition to leave or enter the country without using regular border crossings. Judgments are only rarely passed; courts usually let the security authorities release or deport detained migrants at their discretion. Deportations are usually referred to as ‘voluntary returns’. The Homeland Security Service, Egypt’s domestic intelligence service and the political police of the Sisi regime (formerly known as the State Security Investigation Service), usually tells detained migrants that they have no chances of being released, but that they have the choice of voluntarily leaving the country. Those affected by a deportation order have to pay for the plane ticket themselves. Those who cannot gather enough money for a ticket remain detained indefinitely. Two Eritreans detained in Egypt since 2012 and 2013 respectively have started a hunger strike against their prolonged detention in November 2020, but have not been released ever since. For years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has assisted in the deportation of people from Egypt (especially to West and Central Africa) to their country of origin, a process formally framed as ‘voluntary return’. The IOM also assists in the return of Egyptians who are required to leave Europe and return to Egypt.
Until the Rashid boat accident, at least 32 detention centers were used to incarcerate migrants in Egypt’s coastal provinces alone. Most of these detention facilities were police stations with limited reception capacity. Nationwide, up to 60 detention facilities – including police stations and prisons – are now believed to be used for migrants, including police stations in Aswan in Upper Egypt and Hurghada in the Red Sea governorate. The conditions of detention are mostly catastrophic. Excessively crowded cells are common. Due to poor ventilation, devastating hygienic conditions, and an insufficient supply of food and medication, respiratory diseases and scabies are prevalent. There have been reports of attempted suicides. Since the coast guard began systematically preventing departures from Egypt in 2016, detained migrants are increasingly spread across prisons across the country. Exact information on the number of detained migrants is not available, partly because Egyptian human rights defenders and lawyers who have provided aid to refugees in the past have now become the target of the authorities themselves and therefore only very limited information about the conditions in Egyptian detention centers (including the number of people detained) are available. In 2016 alone, more than 12,000 refugees are said to have been detained in Egypt, more than 4,000 of whom were arrested in the coastal provinces after unsuccessful attempts at crossing the sea – an increase of 85% compared to the previous year.
Systematic use of force by Egyptian security forces against refugees has declined significantly since 2011. However, detained refugees and migrants are still subject to the arbitrary practices of security bodies. Between 2007 and 2011, at least 107 migrants were shot by Egyptian soldiers while trying to cross the Israeli-Egyptian border. However, since the completion of the 200-kilometer barrier at the Israeli-Egyptian border in 2014, the migration route to Israel has been nearly completely blocked off and has hardly been used for years. Prior to 2011, the coast guard have reportedly shot live ammunition on refugee boats in the Mediterranean.
EU projects in Egypt and Egyptian Border Protection Measures
Egypt is one of Europe’s most important strategic partners in preventing irregular migration and in outsourcing the European border regime to Africa. In order to effectively advance the closure of the border regime in the Mediterranean, the EU and its member states rely on cooperation with Al-Sisi’s authoritarian regime, due to Egypt’s geographical location and the country’s importance as a point of transit for refugees from East Africa. The war in Libya, which has again intensified since the end of 2019, and the ongoing mass protests in Algeria since February 2019 (which could destabilize the country in the mid-term), make close cooperation with Egypt inevitable for the EU in order to install an effective border regime in North Africa. Egypt’s security apparatus is capable and willing to significantly restrict the permeability of its borders and is therefore an irreplaceable partner for the EU, backing Europe’s repressive border control policies in the region – at least for now. Egypt’s stabilizing security and macroeconomic situation must be understood against the backdrop of a catastrophic and conflicting social situation and the massive migratory potential of largely impoverished sections of the Egyptian society. From the EU’s perspective, a collapse of the state in Egypt must therefore be avoided at all costs.
For these reasons, too, Egypt is ‘too big to fail’. The $12 billion IMF loan package agreed upon in 2016, as well as numerous bilateral loan agreements between European governments and Egypt aimed at stabilizing the country macroeconomically, while development aid projects implemented by, beside others, German and Italian organizations are intended to mitigate the social consequences of the structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF. Egypt has successfully outsourced parts of its social spending for low-income segments of the Egyptian society to EU countries. Al-Sisi’s regime has realized at an early stage that the EU relies on Cairo’s help to maintain a functioning border control regime in the Mediterranean and has successfully exploited Europe’s dependency of Egypt’s involvement in the border regime in the region for years in order to restore its international reputation after the army’s bloody military coup in July 2013.
European governments still criticize the Egyptian state’s systematic violations of human rights, but respective declarations have been presented much more cautiously since 2015. The European Commission is reluctant to outspokenly slam Egypt’s human rights record, while the less influential European Parliament has repeatedly passed harsh resolutions on the Egyptian authorities’ crackdown on the opposition, activists, the media or civil society. In October 2019, the chamber adopted a sharply worded resolution on the recent wave of arrests of protesters, human rights defenders, and opposition figures (around 4,300 people were arrested within only three weeks and some were tortured in police custody) and called for a ‘profound and comprehensive review of EU relations with Egypt. However, this call remained without significant political consequences. The EU cooperation with Egypt was even gradually expanded despite the further deterioration of the human rights situation in the country.
European-Egyptian cooperation in this area is by no means new. The association agreement between the EU and Egypt, which came into force in 2004, explicitly tackles ‘illegal’ migration. The agreement envisaged a decrease in migratory pressure through the improvement of living conditions for the people living in Egypt, as well as the ‘prevention’ and ‘control’ of ‘illegal’ migration. Both counterparts made a reciprocal pledge at the time to take back citizens required to leave the respective country. In 2007, the Italian government became the only EU member state to sign a bilateral readmission agreement with Egypt and has made regular use of it since this agreement entered into force in 2008.
European-Egyptian Migration Cooperation
Since 2015, EU and EU member states have intensified their cooperation with Egypt in matters of migration and border control policies. In addition to cooperation at the EU level (in part through the framework of the migration dialogue between the EU and Egypt launched in 2017), numerous EU countries are carrying out complementary bilateral projects in Egypt. These are partly financed by European governments, and also through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), set up in 2015. The planned budget for projects in dozens of African countries has now reached a total of € 4.6 billion (as of November 2019). In addition to strengthening Egyptian authorities’ capacities to manage and control migration, the Egypt component of an EUTF project also includes the fight against smuggling, programs to protect migrants living in Egypt, and support for refugee host communities across the country.
So far, only one program solely dedicated for Egypt has been initiated under the EUTF umbrella. The project Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt (ERMCE), endowed with 60 million euros and launched in 2017, aims to improve the Egyptian authorities’ capabilities to manage migration, combat the root causes of migration, and support host communities in the country. The implementing organizations for the various project components include the German state development agency GIZ, the Italian development aid organization AICS, the German Red Cross and Plan International. The ERMCE finances, among other things, cooperation with the Egyptian National Council for Women and a program to promote employment among young people in Assiut and Sohag in Upper Egypt (both provinces are important regions of origin for irregular migrants).
The central ERMCE partner on the Egyptian side is the National Coordinating Committee for Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration and Human Trafficking (NCCPIM-TIP), which was established in 2016 and is a coordinating authority within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This organisation acts as an interface between Egyptian ministries and authorities and international partners and donors. Amongst the measures implemented or planned by the NCCPIM-TIP are PR campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of irregular departures (the intended audience is youth hoping to leave the country), the collection of data on the regions of origin and profiles of irregular migrants, as well as further training measures for Egyptian civil servants. The committee also serves as a disseminator. It organized a workshop for government officials from eight African countries on topics such as ‘illegal’ migration and human trafficking in 2016, in which officials from Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan also took part. The NCCPIM-TIP also drafted a ten-year strategic plan to combat ‘illegal’ migration and was a key stakeholder in drafting the 2016 law on combatting ‘illegal’ migration.
Egypt is also participating in several regional projects funded by the EUTF. The Better Migration Management II (BMM) project aims to expand national and cross-border cooperation between security and judicial authorities and state and non-state actors in North and East Africa. The program is focused on limiting migration from East Africa. Nearly half of all funds committed to the project are earmarked for operational and advisory support for local authorities. This includes equipment support and training measures to benefit investigators, prosecutors, and judges. It is not known whether the joint border patrols on the Sudanese-Egyptian border, agreed upon by Sudan and Egypt in November 2018, were also promoted as part of the BMM program, but this measure fits seamlessly into the objectives of the project. Another ten million euro have been allocated to a program aiming at protecting and reintegrating migrants (through support for ‘voluntary return’, and the reintegration of deported people). The UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is currently carrying out a project to combat criminal networks in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, and will likewise provide equipment and training assistance. In addition, together with the NCCPIM-TIP, the UNODC has been holding workshops for Egyptian judges on topics such as migration and people smuggling since 2018. While the IOM also offers workshops and training measures for Egyptian officials, Egypt’s security apparatus benefits from the highly controversial EU project Euromed Police IV and the ROCK project (Regional Operational Center in Khartoum in Support of the Khartoum Process and AU Horn of Africa Initiative), carried out under the framework of the Khartoum Process.  This regional project, implemented to complement the BMM and organized by the French Civipol, is being promoted in cooperation with INTERPOL and the African Union. It aims at improving the coordination and cooperation between North and East African countries. Egypt also recently intensified its cooperation with the EU border control agency Frontex, which has been carrying out deportations of Egyptians from Germany since 2017 (so far, however, only two deportation flights operated by Frontex are known of).
Bilateral security cooperation with Egypt
A key component of Europe’s migration control policy and cooperation with Egypt are bilateral security projects with the Egyptian security apparatus. This includes arms and weapon exports as well as equipment and training aid for police authorities. Germany, Italy and France play a key role in this. The latter mainly relies on equipment deliveries to the Egyptian military and the Central Security Forces specifically established for crowd control and to crack down on protests. Since 2014, French companies have supplied a Mistral helicopter carrier, two FREMM frigates, four GOWIND corvettes (two of the boats were assembled in a shipyard in Alexandria, licenced by the French arms producer Naval Group), 24 Rafale fighter planes (Dassault), missiles, hundreds of armored vehicles (Renault Trucks Defense delivered these vehicles between 2012 and 2014) and spy software (Amesys) to Egyptian security bodies. In Germany, Egypt ordered four submarines (three of which have already been delivered, as of November 2019), two MEKO-200 frigates (ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems) and missiles (Diehl Defense). The UK, Greece, Cyprus and France also took part in several military maneuvers with the Egyptian Navy in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Germany and Italy are carrying out police trainings and supplying Egyptian authorities with equipment, partly as part of bilateral security agreements. The police agreement signed by Italy and Egypt in 2000 came into force in 2002. Since 2004, training programs for Egyptian security forces have been carried out at various Italian police schools. Since 2011, an average of ten training measures for Egyptian security forces have taken place every year. In 2007, Italy handed over two patrol boats to Egypt, while Italian companies sold ammunition and small arms (Beretta) to Egypt. The Italian company Iveco is one of the most important suppliers of the Central Security Forces and has been supplying them for years with personnel carriers, which play a key role in cracking down on protests.
It was only in 2017 that Italy and Egypt signed a ‘technical’ cooperation agreement worth 1.8 million euros, the essential part of which is the establishment of a police training center for training schemes relevant to migration control within the governmental Police Academy in Cairo. Italian police authorities intend to train at least 360 officials from 22 African countries (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan , South Sudan, and Tunisia) in this center. In December 2019, the Italian-Egyptian cooperation agreement, which serves as the basis for the training project, was extended for another two years and is now scheduled to run until 2021. As part of a pilot project carried out in 2018, topics such as border control, return procedures and the identification of forged identity documents have been on the agenda of this project. The agreement also includes the establishment of an Egyptian-Italian expert group on migration and the delivery of equipment to Egypt.
Germany is also massively intensifying its police cooperation with Egypt since 2014. In June 2016, after two years of negotiations, the interior ministers of both countries signed a security agreement that covers fighting organized crime, terrorism and ‘illegal’ migration, as well as natural disaster management and policing of public mass events like football games. Cooperation between the German Federal Police Academy and the Police Academy in Cairo is also planned and includes lectures and training courses. In 2015, German police authorities carried out initial training and further training measures for the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. On the German side, the Federal Police and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) are involved, on the Egyptian side the main partners of this agreement are the Ministry of Interior, the border police and the intelligence services GIS and NSS (State Security Service or Homeland Security).
Since then, the German Federal Police has carried out countless workshops, working visits and trainings. It has also undertaken evaluation measures in the areas of border protection, document and certificate security, as well as aviation and airport security at Egyptian and German airports. The main focus of these projects is the fight against human smuggling and the identification of forged identity documents. The BKA has deployed a liaison officer at the German embassy in Cairo and trained officers of the Egyptian domestic intelligence service NSS as part of the BKA’s scholarship program. Germany is also supplying Egypt with equipment such as mobile ID card readers under the agreement. At the end of 2017, the BKA canceled a workshop for the Egyptian Ministry of Interior on the subject of monitoring websites with extremist content. The official reason for cancelling the workshop was the risk that “some of the knowledge and skills to be taught in the course could not only be used to persecute terrorists, but possibly also to persecute other groups of people.” So far, however, this was the only case in which the German government canceled a police training project dedicated for Egyptian authorities; on the whole, Berlin has so far stuck to its security cooperation with Egypt. Several trainings scheduled for 2020 have been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In view of the extreme social inequalities and the immense size of the Egyptian population, Egypt is considered a ‘powder keg’. The migration potential of the Egyptian society is enormous. Accordingly, the EU and its member states have been flanking their security and migration control policy and cooperation with Egypt since 2015 by significantly expanding their development aid schemes in the country in order to mitigate the social consequences of the structural adjustment programs imposed by the IMF, to combat the causes of irregular migration and to support host communities of refugees living in Egypt. Germany and Italy in particular have massively expanded their bilateral development cooperation in Egypt ever since and are increasingly interlinking this with their foreign and security policies.
The Italian development agency AICS is active in Egypt as well, particularly in the areas of the promotion of women and gender mainstreaming, but also in environmental projects. As part of a debt swap program launched in 2012 and recently expanded, AICS carried out professional training programs for street children and young mothers in Greater Cairo. According to AICS, 25,000 people will have benefited from the project within three years, which also includes health related services. Projects to improve working conditions and efficiency in agriculture were carried out in Beheira and Damietta. In Assiut in Upper Egypt, the organization invested in projects on youth and women empowerment, employment promotion and awareness-raising campaigns on health and environmental issues. The explicit aim of the program is to prevent irregular migration in important regions of origin for irregular migrants.
Another significant player in the field of development cooperation in Egypt is the state-run German development agency GIZ, which runs one of its largest offices across the world in Cairo. In late 2018, the organization employed 267 national and 44 international employees, three integrated specialists and six development workers. The cooperation focuses on promoting employment for young people and women, gender diversity management in companies, promoting handicraft training schemes and projects in the areas of water supply, wastewater management and waste management.
What role do (which) NGOs play?
Refugees and migrants living in Egypt are dependent on the support of private and non-governmental aid organizations, as Egypt – despite its international obligations – continues to refuse to introduce asylum recognition procedures and to provide support services even to refugees recognized by UNHCR. The most important contact points for refugees in Egypt therefore include church organizations and small NGOs which have emerged from self-organized initiatives, mostly working in Greater Cairo or in Alexandria. The Saint Andrew’s Refugee Service, which has been active in Egypt since 1979, has been one of the most important organizations operating legally in the country for years, advocating for the needs of refugees and offering English courses, legal advice and medical assistance. The organization, which is based in Downtown Cairo and associated with the St. Andrew’s church, also assists asylum seekers with the bureaucratic procedures of UNHCR. Meanwhile, numerous informally organized initiatives are working in those districts in Cairo, featuring a high proportion of immigrants. However, due to the restrictive Egyptian NGO law, they are being forced into informality and have only very limited capacities.
Governmental Egyptian satellite organizations such as the National Council for Women and governmental foreign development organizations such as GIZ or AICS are just as willing to get involved in development aid measures as are several European branches of the Red Cross or NGOs such as Plan International. Due to the restrictive NGO law, which heavily regulates and restricts the foreign funding of projects, foreign aid organizations can only operate in Egypt under very difficult conditions and consequently have been gradually withdrawing from the country for years. In addition, this withdrawal is exacerbated by the difficulty in finding partner organizations in Egypt to conclude formal cooperation agreements. For the implementation of measures relevant to migration control and setting up development projects, the EU is therefore highly dependent on governmental partner organizations.
Economic interests – who will benefit?
The beneficiaries of the migration control cooperation between Europe and Egypt undoubtedly include those companies that supply Egypt with armaments and weapons as well as equipment for police authorities. These include French companies such as the Naval Group, Dassault, Renault Trucks Defense or Amesys, the Italian companies Beretta and Iveco, as well as German arms manufacturers such as ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and Diehl Defense, but also the Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall Group, which reportedly set up a ready-made bomb and ammunition factory in Egypt in 2018 through a subsidiary company located in South Africa.
Egypt’s military regime meanwhile extensively exploits the EU’s border externalization policy in the Mediterranean region for political purposes. Arms and equipment deliveries from European companies, as well as the police training aid carried out by Germany and Italy, allows the Al-Sisi regime to consolidate its rule and give the security apparatus the necessary means to seal off the country’s borders and to quell unrest or protests by force.
Who is losing?
The systematic upgrading and arming of the authoritarian Egyptian military regime by the EU, EU member states and governmental or civil society organizations involved in the externalization of the EU border regime to Egypt have comprehensively stabilized the rule of Al-Sisi and his regime. The social and economic inequalities in the Egyptian society are thus additionally consolidated. The Egyptian society and all those who live in Egypt temporarily or permanently (and are therefore directly affected by Al-Sisi’s authoritarian rule) are taken into collective detention through the support for and stabilization of the Egyptian military regime.
What resistance is there?
There is hardly any effective resistance in the country to the EU’s migration and border externalization policies and the EU’s cooperation with Egypt’s government. Any active political engagement in the country has been life-threatening since Al-Sisi came to power in 2013. There have always been periods in which Egyptian human rights groups, activists or independent trade unions have campaigned for the rights of immigrants and refugees, but civil society is increasingly paralyzed and only able to work under extremely difficult conditions. Journalistic or academic research on topics such as border externalization, security cooperation between the EU and Egypt, or the living conditions of refugees and migrants in the country are difficult and dangerous for those involved (including interviewees). Effective on-site monitoring of relevant aspects has therefore only been possible to a very limited extent since Al-Sisi’s takeover.
Materials and sources
- German-Egyptian security agreement (adopted by the Bundestag in 2017)
- EU-Egypt partnership priorities 2017-2020
- EU-Egypt Association Agreement 2001 (entered into force in 2004)
- Analysis of German-Egyptian Security Cooperation (RLS)
- Extracts of responses to parliamentary questions related to EU border evacuation
- EU-Egypt migration cooperation (report by EuroMed Rights)
- ARCI report: Italian-Egyptian security and migration cooperation