[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British support for stability in Egypt.
It is a great honour to introduce this debate. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I visited Egypt many times before I came to this place: I went there as a student and in 2008 I spent a month in Cairo trying to learn Arabic—very unsuccessfully, I should add. I have also had the honour of visiting Egypt many times on parliamentary delegations with the Conservative Middle East Council and others.
This is a timely and important debate, for a number of reasons. First, we need only open the newspaper every day or look online to see the absolute turmoil that much of the region has plunged into. I am also conscious of the fact that a lot of the turmoil and confusion that has crept into our world has emerged very recently. I recall travelling to Egypt for the first time in 1998. There had been a terrorist outrage in Luxor in 1997, a terrible incident in which dozens of people were killed, but when I visited—obviously this was all before 9/11—there was a real optimism about the place. It was a broadly secular country: people could walk freely, there was no real pressure for women to dress in any particular way and alcohol was served freely. It was a country looking towards a bright future.
It is not my place to go through the recent history of the region today, but as a consequence of what has happened there in the past 15 years since the events of 9/11, and everything that has been going on since the Arab spring, the need for stability in Egypt and its role in the world have increased. The mood there has been a lot more pessimistic, and its people and Government have gone through a very difficult past five years.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The Egyptian people and nation are central to the middle east. Does he agree that it is crucial for the future wellbeing of the middle east and the wider region that Egypt restores itself to a position of centrality and stability in order to spread that across the region?
The hon. Gentleman has highlighted very pithily—more pithily than I did—the key fact that Egypt is absolutely central to the Arab world. We need only look at the numbers: something like 90 million people—well over a third of the Arabic-speaking people across the globe—live in Egypt. In Al-Azhar University, Egypt has one of the key centres of Islamic scholarship and learning. Egyptian media dominate the Arabic-speaking world. The Egyptian Arabic dialect is widely understood across the Arab world.
Egypt is also important for historic reasons. In the 20th century we need only look at the careers of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. These were huge figures in the Arab world who played a role in securing stability in this important region. As the hon. Gentleman said, Egypt is therefore absolutely central to any form of stability or solution to the ongoing problems in the middle east. I called for this debate because we need to recognise, in this Parliament, throughout the country and throughout the international community, that stability in Egypt is crucial and we should all be investing heavily in it.
Although Egypt has attained a modicum of stability, people will recognise that the degree of stability that has been reached is not complete. There are still dangers. We saw an appalling terrorist outrage in November, when a Russian civilian aircraft was blown up in the sky with huge loss of life. There are threats still lurking in the Egyptian scene. Although there is a terrorist threat, it must be admitted that the Egyptian Government have taken some very severe steps. As friends of Egypt—as people who are interested, in every sense of the word, in maintaining stability in and supporting Egypt—it is our job to ask probing questions about its Government’s treatment of political prisoners and people who have expressed doubts about or even opposition to the regime. It is our job to ensure that the Egyptian Government are held to the highest standards with respect to human rights and individual freedoms. I do not deny that at all.
Many people in Britain view some developments in Egypt with considerable concern. I need only mention the Italian University of Cambridge PhD student who was found killed, clearly murdered, in Cairo six weeks ago. We do not know what happened and we have not heard any definitive answers from the regime. The Egyptian Government cannot simply be given a blank cheque by their friends and allies in the west. I regard myself as a friend of Egypt—broadly speaking, Britain and the British Government are friends of Egypt—but being a friend does not mean that we blindly accept everything that the Egyptian Government do, nor does it mean that we should acquiesce or turn a blind eye to the outrages or abuses we have identified.
Recently, I was delighted to be able to join my hon. Friend, and other Members present, on an extremely informative visit to Cairo. He is making an important point about how the Egyptian Government operate, which is of concern to our constituents. Nevertheless, does he agree that for the Egyptian people—indeed, for the whole region—there is one thing of huge importance that probably dwarfs everything else: stability? He mentioned that Egypt is a very large country, with a population of 90 million. It has a huge history, unlike many other Arab countries. It has a big contribution to make, so stability will be an important factor, and we should be supporting the Egyptian Government in that pursuit.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. At the centre of this issue is the fact that we have to deal with a very fine balancing act in Egypt, which is why this debate is so important. On the one hand, we have a fragile situation in the region and a country that has gone through enormous economic pressure and two destabilising revolutions in four years. On the other hand, it is a country that is crucial to the stability of the region. There is the need for order and stability, but there is also a Government who have a mixed record, if I can put it that way, on guaranteeing human rights and the pressure and force they have applied in domestic situations.
We in Parliament have to appreciate that very fine balance, because frankly we do not understand the immense pressures that the Egyptian people have gone through. One startling fact is that in 1952 the population of Egypt was 20 million. I have spoken to Cairenes who remember those times, and they remember a completely different Egypt. Cities such as Cairo and Alexandria were much smaller, yet much more spacious. In many ways they were much more luxurious than they are today. Over the past 60 years, the Egyptian population has more than quadrupled. That demographic pressure constitutes Egypt’s greatest challenge.
As can be imagined, in a country where more than 50% of people are under the age of 25, there needs to be employment, a degree of economic progress and a Government who recognise the ambitions and aspirations of their young people. In that context, government can be very difficult. Against that backdrop of a growing population and economic pressure, there is also the rise of, for want of a better phrase, political Islam and the complications that radical Islamic thinking—takfiri thinking, as it is called—bring to the political mix.
While I am talking about the demographics in Egypt, we also should remember that there are nearly 10 million Copts—Egyptian Christians who have been there for 2,000 years, since the birth of Christianity—who comprise something like 10% of Egypt’s population. They will point out that they have been there for longer than Islam has existed as a religion, so they have a deep historic connection to and experience of the country of their forefathers.
I have had the privilege of visiting Egypt a number of times in the last six years. In that time, I have seen four or five different Heads of State and three different Governments, and I have had the privilege of speaking to several Ministers. In the brief period after the Muslim Brotherhood took over and were running the country, it was clear to me there was huge pressure on the Copts. Churches were being burned and Coptic people were being attacked. No community breathed a greater sigh of relief when the Muslim Brotherhood was removed, as it were, from government than the Copts. No group of people was happier to see a restoration, as they would see it, of some kind of order under the form of General Sisi.
For us in the west looking at that development, we can quibble about the details and say that, like Mubarak, Sisi is some kind of military dictator, but that is to overlook a lot of the changes that have happened in Egypt. We had the privilege of meeting Egyptian parliamentarians, who treated us and hosted us incredibly generously and respectfully in their Parliament. They were very keen to adopt the best parliamentary practices from Britain and apply them to their new Parliament, which met less than two months ago. They are absolutely committed to building a form of parliamentary democracy. That process might take a long time. Egypt’s parliamentary democracy is certainly not perfectly formed, but few parliamentary democracies can claim to be perfect and fully formed. We have just been considering how the House of Lords operates in our country. Parliament has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years, yet we are still evolving and trying to look at the nature of the two Houses and how they co-ordinate with each other.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although Egypt has had its unique problems since the Arab spring—or the Arab winter, as it is called in some quarters—the fact that the Egyptian Government are forcefully putting forward a democratic mandate is a good thing for the region?
I think my hon. Friend is right. People will dispute the extent to which Egypt is a full, participatory democracy—people can have different views—but it is clearly going in the right direction. We can discuss where along the road we think it is, but the movement is positive. Many of the elections that were held in Mubarak’s time were far more tightly controlled than the parliamentary election we have just witnessed in Egypt. The nature of political life in Egypt is evolving. That goes to the core of what I am saying. Stability—some degree of law and order in the streets—is absolutely essential. Anecdotally, we were told that at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood there was practically a self-imposed curfew in Cairo. Now people are beginning to go out—they feel a bit more secure and safer—and a civic society is growing.
I have talked briefly about political developments and aspirations, about structures and about Parliaments, but we need to think about a basic economic question, which I alluded to when I was talking about the population increase. Demographic pressures and the economy are absolutely crucial. Anyone who knows anything about Egypt will know that, broadly, about 20% of its economy is based on tourism. One thing that we can do directly to help Egypt to build up its economy is to help tourism. Our delegation learned that the suspension of British flights to Sharm el-Sheikh was a matter of grave concern to Egyptian businessmen and the Egyptian Government. I recommend that the Government look seriously at that—I know we are doing that and are inching towards lifting the ban and stopping the suspension of flights. If that were to happen, sooner rather than later, it would be an immense boon to Egyptian tourism and its economy.
I apologise for intervening again—I am not seeking to catch your eye, Mr Pritchard, as I have to entertain 101 Logistic Brigade from Aldershot shortly, so I will not be able to make a speech—but I want to pick up on this important point my hon. Friend has made. Does he agree that the British Government have moved heaven and earth to do whatever they can to ensure that we can resume flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, and that the Egyptians have come a long way towards meeting the British authorities’ safety requirements? It is imperative that both sides work even harder so we can resume flights in time for the summer season.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Something like 1 million British tourists go to Egypt every year, under normal circumstances. We have tried extremely hard to help in that regard—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister and others have spoken eloquently and tried hard behind the scenes—but this is a matter of critical importance. Egypt has a deficit of something like 10% or 12% of GDP, which is very high. It has a very high unemployment rate—it is something like 12%—and the demographic pressures that I have talked about are not getting any easier. The economy is critical to the stability of Egypt and the wider region. That is something that we can do directly to help Egypt.
I would not want to anticipate or prejudge any of the security considerations, because they are obviously paramount, but I want to put on the table the fact that directly supporting Egyptian tourism will have a knock-on effect. It will help the Egyptian economy and provide employment. That in itself will defuse a lot of the tension, militate against the attractions of extremism and prevent young people from going down that route.
In conclusion, I think we have a good and helpful relationship with Egypt. I would not want to inflate his ego too much, but we have a Minister responsible for the region who has a deep knowledge of and commitment to, not only Egypt, but other countries in the middle east—I know, because I have travelled with him. Broadly, our relationship with the Egyptian Government is very strong. I would suggest that we closely consider the issue of flights. Economic support will obviously be important in years to come. Lastly, while we have done many good things and built up a good relationship, there is some way to go. This is an evolving relationship and there will be challenges ahead, but I hope that in those challenges Egypt can find a solid and steadfast friend in Britain, the British Government and our people.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing this debate. Instability in Egypt and across many areas in the middle east is a grave concern. It is one of the major global challenges faced by this generation, and such is the intricacy of the challenge that one fears that it may well be faced by generations to come as well. I am here because I and my constituents in Cambridge care deeply about the human rights abuses and political volatility that the people of Egypt are facing. I am also here because I want to tell the House about Giulio Regeni, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned and whose appalling murder has drawn international condemnation.
Giulio was a 28-year-old Italian PhD student at Girton College in the University of Cambridge. He spoke five languages—Italian, English, Spanish, Arabic, and German—and was researching labour unrest and independent trade unions as a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo. He went missing on 25 January, which was the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the 2011 uprising against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He was on his way to meet a friend at a restaurant near Tahrir Square—known, of course, as the symbolic centre of the Egyptian revolution—but nine days later his body was found in a ditch between Cairo and Alexandria.
I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members have seen the details in the news, so I will not avoid being explicit about the horrors of Giulio’s death. In the past few days, we have learned from the post-mortem that earlier accounts have been corroborated: Giulio had been stabbed, burned with cigarettes, bruised, beaten and mutilated; he had suffered broken ribs and a brain haemorrhage, and his nails had been ripped out. The Italian Interior Minister described his ordeal as “inhuman, animal-like” violence, and the senior prosecutor said that Giulio probably suffered a “slow death”, but initially there were conflicting reports about the cause of his death. Early reports about signs of torture were contradicted by claims that a traffic accident was to blame. People were rightly suspicious about these explanations—right to think it unlikely that a traffic accident somehow systematically ripped out his fingernails.
Giulio’s family and friends need answers. Italy wants answers. I suggest that we all need answers, not only because this case was brutal and because it was the first case that we know about of a foreign academic researcher working in Cairo being subjected to such sadism, but because it was not an isolated incident for the people of Egypt. According to human rights organisations, the torture that it appears Giulio suffered is a matter of routine for those imprisoned by state security organisations in Egypt. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Egyptian citizens are seeing
“repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history”.
According to the Al-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, almost 500 people have died at the hands of Egypt’s security forces and over 600 people were tortured while in detention in 2015. According to The Guardian, hundreds of Egyptians are being “disappeared”, tortured and held outside of judicial oversight.
What can one do against such brutal barbarism? Why on earth did this happen to Giulio? Some have speculated that the politically sensitive research that he was undertaking on labour unions in Egypt was a factor, or perhaps his extracurricular journalism for the il manifesto communist newspaper in Italy meant he was targeted. We do not know, but that there are countries in this world where people are imprisoned, tortured, or murdered for their academic pursuits, their writing, or their political views is the sad truth.
We recognise that the situation in Egypt is complex and challenging, and like my hon. Friends I desperately want to see the region underpinned by stability and democracy. I hope the Minister will enlighten us about recent representations that the Government have made to the Egyptian Government regarding human rights issues. In a written answer on 11 February, the Government said:
“We are aware of the tragic death of Mr Regini, an Italian national, following his disappearance on 25 January and pass our condolences to his friends and family at this difficult time. We support Italian and Egyptian efforts to investigate into the circumstances of his death.”
I would welcome some clarification of what can only be described as “diplomatic language”. In what way are the British Government supporting the Italian and Egyptian investigative efforts?
I conclude by quoting from the letter signed by more than 4,600 academics from around the globe. They wrote of Giulio:
“Our community has been enriched by his presence. We are diminished by the loss of a young researcher whose work tackled questions that are vitally important to our understanding of contemporary Egyptian society.
“We…call on the Egyptian authorities to cooperate with an independent and impartial investigation into all instances of forced disappearances, cases of torture and deaths in detention during January and February this year, alongside investigations by criminal prosecutors into Giulio’s death, in order that those responsible for these crimes can be identified and brought to justice.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I refer right hon. and hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I too have been able to visit Egypt to inform myself about what has been and is now going on. I associate myself with and echo the concerns hon. Members have expressed about the tragic fate of Giulio Regeni and other human rights abuses, which I will discuss further later in my speech. Recent events in Egypt have fundamentally disturbed us and have challenged us to think about the dynamics underlying the Arab spring, posing basic questions to western politicians which have been played out in Egypt on a global stage. In many ways, events in Egypt fundamentally challenge our sometimes lazy notions of democracy and challenge us to consider the realities of the balance and tensions between freedoms and the merits of stability.
We should not underestimate the uniqueness of Egypt’s position. Look at its neighbours, which also experienced the Arab spring tidal wave in 2011. In Syria, horrific, blood-stained chaos is suckling the diabolical death culture of Daesh. It is a humanitarian catastrophe and a centre of global tensions, the effects of which include not only untold numbers of inhumane acts of cruelty against individuals, children, and homosexuals, but the destabilisation of the whole of Europe. Look at Yemen, sunk beneath a flood of war, and Iraq, struggling against the onslaught of Daesh. Libya is now a failed state and an arena of warring militias and jihadists. These are Egypt’s neighbours and it is important to consider Egypt’s actions and challenges in that context.
By contrast, look at Egypt. There was an uprising in 2011 and Mubarak was removed in February. In June 2012, Egypt held elections and Morsi was elected, but then the direction that Morsi began taking dramatically alarmed the country, including many of those who had thought that the Muslim Brotherhood would prove genuinely moderate. Between January and the summer of 2013 public protest reached boiling point, and on 30 June Morsi was removed. In May 2014, after some constitutional preparations and changes, General el-Sisi, a Muslim who was appointed by Morsi, was elected as president to serve as a Muslim who wants a secular state. At the time, the west described that as undemocratic, but this is one of those times when we should step back, take a reality check, and consider our priorities and where our judgment should lie.
A close friend of mine who is half-Egyptian and whose Copt family lives in Alexandria and Cairo reported to me the rapidly growing mortal fear felt by Copts, as members of their congregation began to disappear and churches were attacked. The culture of fear under Morsi escalated quickly and alarmingly. Egyptian Muslims have anecdotally told me that they also became frightened when the Muslim Brotherhood appeared not to be what it originally said on the tin. They became alarmed at Morsi’s attempt to make himself constitutionally unchallengeable. We can all think of a great leader—perhaps not so great—in the last century whose first challenge to Europe was to make himself constitutionally unchallengeable. In that growing fear and alarm about oppression, Egypt simply rejected the path to political Islam that it was being hurled down with brute force.
We have to remember that democracy was never going to happen in Egypt as it does in Tunbridge Wells. To think otherwise is to demonstrate the naivety that the west sometimes displays when it tries to impose on other countries standards and structures that took our countries several hundred years of bloody war to establish, and then becomes judgmental. When travelling around Egypt, I looked for the results of the process that Britain called undemocratic. I was lucky enough to be at the opening of the new Suez canal expansion, which was achieved in less than a year—necessary, but far from sufficient in aiding the Egyptian economy to stabilise and thrive. This is anecdotal, but in the city of Cairo I observed nothing but tangible relief that at last someone had taken control of a country people had felt was teetering over into oblivion. To my surprise, that feeling was expressed by conservative Muslims as well. That fundamental sense of relief was echoed by mothers, students and taxi drivers—yes, there was apprehension for the future, but there was fundamental relief that Egypt was finally under some kind of control. Ironically, although not democratically elected as the west might have preferred, Sisi, as far as we can tell, enjoys a popularity that many elected leaders in this country would do a lot for.
I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying that. There was of course a democratic process after considerable institutional and constitutional preparations were made for the transition, which, given the context, was quite remarkable, particularly compared with the fates of other countries surrounding Egypt. I was referring to the fact that many people did not want Morsi to be removed; they wanted him to hang on and then elections to take place. From what I saw of people living in Egypt—I admit this is only anecdotal—the idea that elections would take place in a free and fair way in that culture of fear was optimistic at best.
I do not want anyone to think that I am describing a rosy situation—it is far from rosy. The younger population is very concerned and, interestingly enough, their concerns chime with the concerns about human rights abuses and clampdowns that we have heard in the Chamber today—concerns about the imprisonment of journalists and the appalling, tragic and diabolical treatment of the Italian Cambridge student. I do not have to take up valuable time in expressing how abominable that case is, because other hon. Members have done so far better than I could. Interestingly, students and young people said that it was not only abominable, but politically unnecessary, because Sisi enjoyed sufficient popularity not to need to clamp down in that heavy-handed way.
That brings me on to my next point: that such human rights abuses are not only fundamentally morally wrong, but dangerous for the country itself. Human rights abuses foster the kind of radicalism, extremism and takfiri thinking that Egypt is fundamentally pitched against. In looking at radicals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, we see the detrimental effect that prison torture plays in radicalising budding or existing extremists. If we think that we have an incentive to crush extremism, look at Egypt’s neighbours and see just how urgent the crushing of that extremist takfiri mentality is to them. How can Egypt become more successful in eradicating extremism? My impression is that, in common with many countries that are facing modernisation and a perhaps already modernised younger generation, Egypt is experiencing the counterintuitive paradox of needing to grip less tightly in order to be stronger.
We had the great privilege and interesting experience of meeting many Members of the nascent Parliament. I remember the confusion in this Parliament—a great institution—when in 2010, for the first time in a long time, we had a coalition Government. Everyone ran around not quite knowing what was going on. Imagine a completely new Parliament, a set of 200 or so pieces of legislation that had to be reviewed in a short space of time and the establishment of much of the constitution—something we take for granted in this country. That is a Parliament that is really trying to get off the ground, so it would seem bizarre for Britain, which has such an established Parliament, not to take a lead in helping and nurturing that fledgling to fly and to become the solid institution that is so important to form a politically stable Egypt. The country is a brave and resilient one, trying to form a bastion of democracy amid a sea of hostility.
There are also deep concerns about Egypt’s economy. With oil prices falling, support from the Gulf is waning, and that is worrying. To create a healthier economy, Sisi has to perform a difficult balancing act by weaning the country off subsidies, while avoiding the public protests that would emerge to destabilise Egypt were prices of bread on the street to go up. Tourism accounts for 10% to 15% of the Egyptian economy—about 1% to 5% is from Britain. If we want Egypt to remain stable and to flourish, we need Sharm el-Sheikh flights to resume as soon as possible. The work there must be concluded quickly. In assessing the security of Sharm el-Sheikh flights, obviously we must put the safety of our citizens first, but we should also consider the security implications of not resuming the flights. An awful lot of Egyptian people depend on tourism. If they are left jobless and feeling spurned by Britain, we have to consider where they might turn for a livelihood and security. We do not want them to turn to extremism.
The stakes are high. If Egypt crumbles economically and social disorder breaks out, the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe that we fear now and this summer will increase dramatically. The exchange rate of the Egyptian currency is artificially high and floating the currency on the open market is a frighteningly risky prospect for the country. It would be a leap of faith, and in making any leap everyone needs to feel surrounded by friends who will help. Furthermore, if we do not help Egypt to modernise, social disorder will feed and nurture Daesh and other pro-Islamic State players.
We can do so much. We have a rich experience of democracy, so we can help Egypt to form a Parliament and functioning state institutions. Education is also vital. The broken-down education system in Egypt needs almost a complete revamp. That, too, is something in which Britain has expertise and experience. As we all know, education and forging a future for young people is one of our key weapons in preventing young people from falling prey to the predatory nature of extremist and takfiri thinkers. If we are not proactive in forming such a relationship with Egypt and in helping it to become the democratic nation that it is trying hard to be—not perfectly, but it is trying—other nations will step into that gap. I am not sure that we especially want Russia to in and to be seen as the primary friend of Egypt. We need allies in the region, so we need to support them.
When looking at the human rights abuses, which are appalling, we need to ensure that we are measuring carefully what it is that we are concerned about. If we are concerned about human beings and their suffering, the metric of our judgments and actions on human rights abuses must be the number of people enduring such suffering. It can be easy to focus blame on the locus of responsibility, whether a Government or an institution, but much less easy to blame a failed state, because there is no one there to blame. We are, however, concerned about human beings and their lives, so we need to look at where the most human rights abuses take place: in a stable state or in a failed state.
With respect to human rights abuses, it is important to mention Giulio Regeni, a research student who I believe lived in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). I followed the case and it seems difficult to apportion blame directly, because not only are the Government responsible for some abuses, but there are rogue elements within the security apparatus. One thing that we have not mentioned is the fact that the Egyptian military is broadly involved in ramifying branches of economic and social life, business and so on. When people talk about the Egyptian Government, the notion is complicated.
My hon. Friend makes the case most eloquently. The more that we can help the Egyptian Government to stabilise institutionally and to have a better grip on its institutions, the more we can help the security services to operate in a way that we in the west like to see our security services operate. The more the security service and its activities can be aligned with the state, the more stable the country will be.
To go back to the point I was making, just because it is hard to allocate blame in countries such as Syria and Libya and to solve the problem that is causing untold numbers of human rights abuses, we should not let the fact such abuses are taking place under a Government deter us from tackling them where they are happening on an abominable scale. It is easy for us to put our own moral virtue, in liking to blame someone, ahead of our concern for human welfare.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) made a powerful case for the need for stability in Egypt. We owe it to the Egyptian people, to the British people, who are concerned about stability and the migrant process, to Europe and to everyone everywhere, whether moderate Muslims, Christians or of any religion, not to sit and condemn and carp at a country that is certainly not doing everything well and that certainly gives rise to much concern, but to help it to obliterate the things that cause us concern—to help one of the lone islands of stability attempting democracy that has not succumbed to instability and an Islamic takfiri alarming state to thrive and flourish. That is in the interests of all of us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for giving us a chance to speak on this matter. It does not seem like it is three years since we had a similar debate in Westminster Hall. Incidentally, I think the leader of the Labour party was part of that debate. Remarkably, we seemed to agree across the Chamber on all the human rights and equalities issues, and I do not believe it will be any different today, because the Members here are of the same mind.
For decades, Egypt has not only been a beacon of hope in the middle east and north Africa for freedom and liberty in comparison with its neighbours, but done well economically. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) in her last few words referred to democracy in Egypt. Co-operation with NATO and the west has been priceless; we saw how much that meant when Egypt suffered from instability following what was called the Arab spring.
It is pleasing to see the shadow Minister and the Minister in their places. I look forward to both of their contributions and I am quite sure that the Minister will be as positive as ever. He has the ability to understand what we are thinking and put that in his answers.
At the end of last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) was appointed the economic envoy to Egypt—the Minister will know that. We are pleased that someone from this House has direct input and can carry the banner, so to speak, for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—in Northern Ireland we are fond of carrying banners. That is fantastic news and we fully support him.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the very appointment of a trade envoy to Egypt—our current envoy is excellent—illustrates that the Government really want to engage? Does he also agree that in John Casson and Nasser Kamel we have two good ambassadors who are extremely good at engaging with their respective populations and acting together?
I can only agree with the hon. Lady on all those points. I will mention one of the ambassadors later on in my speech, because lots of good things have been done.
I want to look at the debate in a positive fashion, but I also want to highlight some issues. While we recognise the small and giant steps that Egypt has taken, we must look at some of the changes needed. I want to talk about them in a respectful fashion, which is important.
Relationships, which are proving fruitful, still exist as we seek to foster peace in the region. They are invaluable in the fight against Daesh. Egypt needs to be a lead nation in any coalition against Islamic State. We may not hear about it often, but Egypt’s borders are crossed on many occasions from Libya, where Daesh groups operate in units. They have attacked and in their activities a number of Egyptian soldiers and civilians have been murdered. They are on the front line, so let us give them the support they need. When the Minister responds, he will probably be able to tell us a wee bit more about what we are doing. I know it is not his remit, but perhaps he can say how we can support them militarily. It is important that we do so and that we are seen to do so.
We need to do everything we can to support one of our strongest allies in the region in its drive to return to stability so that it can not only use its military and diplomatic capabilities, but reignite as the beacon of hope that once shone in north Africa and the middle east. For all its problems, Egypt has shown itself to be a bulwark against the instability and chaos that plagues other countries not too far away in the middle east and the Arab world. Instability has swept over them like a tidal wave, but it has not to the same extent in Egypt.
Egypt is strong, Egypt is our friend, and it makes economic, political and strategic sense to ensure that it remains our friend to provide the stability necessary in the middle east, now and in the years and decades to come. Notably, al-Sisi’s top security concern is the presence of Daesh in the Sinai peninsula. Earlier I mentioned the attacks from Daesh groups in Libya, which illustrate that. That is dangerous from a human point of view, a regional and global security point of view and an economic point of view. It offers a new launch pad for the abhorrent Daesh disturbingly close to our other ally in the region, the state of Israel.
It should be remembered—no one in the Chamber will have any doubts about it—that Israel has been Egypt’s ally from the beginning of biblical times. In the past the relationships were strong, even with the Arab and the Jew. We still have that working relationship between Egypt and Israel, which is perhaps unique in the middle east, not only on economic things, but to combat Daesh and take on the threat of Palestinian terrorists. Egypt sees the threat, Israel sees the threat, and they work together to ensure that the tunnels that have been used by some, coming from Egypt towards Israel and the Palestinians, are closed off. We must recognise that Egypt plays a part in that.
Members should be aware that that is being taken seriously by our diplomats in the region. The hon. Lady referred to our ambassador in Egypt, John Casson, who last week addressed an Egyptian Ministry of Tourism conference in Cairo. All Members who have spoken so far have rightly referred to the importance of tourism, which we need to reignite. We need to provide security first of all. Ambassador Casson stressed the importance of the points I have raised: the economic, diplomatic, strategic, and defence and security ties.
As a married man, I have to be careful. [Laughter.] I am very loyal and dutiful to my wife, who I love, but if it was in a purely platonic way, I think that would be okay.
The ambassador praised the efforts of Egypt to re-emerge from the years of instability she suffered following the Arab spring and the Muslim Brotherhood takeover. Three years ago I had a chance to visit Egypt with the all-party parliamentary group on Egypt. I had always wanted to visit Egypt—I had a purpose. The APPG met President el-Sisi in his palace, so I had a chance to put to him issues about freedom of religious belief, which are important for me and for my Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt, and I was impressed by his response to the questions put—I could not say otherwise. He showed his commitment to the change he wanted to see and the society he wanted in Egypt. I was impressed by that. He also won the election shortly after that, and let us be quite clear: a democratic process was carried out and he was overwhelmingly elected. The people were not happy with the Muslim Brotherhood—although they were not happy with Mubarak either—but I believe that President al-Sisi delivered a democratic process to them.
On our visit the members of the all-party group had a chance to raise some issues. We met a pastor in a church in Cairo, called Pastor Sami. People often say to me, when I mention him, “Is he from Belfast?” I say, “No, he is not; he is from Cairo, and he is an Egyptian.” Seven thousand people attend that evangelical church in Cairo, but you will never hear about that, Mr Pritchard. It is one of those things that come out only from visits to Egypt or from having direct contact with places in the area. Pastor Sami wanted the changes. I expressed to him my concerns about people who had converted from Islam to Christianity, and a block being put on them, and asked about the level of direct representation at every level of the democratic process—not just with respect to President el-Sisi. There was a meeting about a month ago of the all-party group on religion or belief, which I chair, and we met some people from Egypt. There are a number of Christian MPs in Parliament in Egypt, taking part in the democratic process and making changes, as they should.
First, it is an improvement because people can pursue their religious beliefs without fear in Egypt today. There are still attacks, but there is a change, and I have seen that. When I visited I had a chance to meet the Grand Mufti. It was an opportunity to meet someone of Muslim beliefs at a high level and to ask him his personal opinion on the new Egypt that we would see shortly afterwards. He made a commitment to ensure that people would have the opportunity to express their religious belief without repercussions. I want that to come from the top, and to go all the way down; and I think there are levels further down that it has not yet reached. There are steps to be taken—small ones and big ones.
The Islamic groups that have infiltrated into Egypt are more violent. In the Sinai region, radical groups seem to operate with impunity. Christians are punished and pushed outside the proper legal process. Coptic Christians, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne mentioned, have been expelled from their villages. There is persecution and discrimination, and one example I know of concerns a schoolgirl whose name is Marina. She is 10 and the youngest of six children. Her mum and dad are illiterate, but they send all the children to school. As a Christian, she has to sit at the back of the class on her own, isolated and perhaps marginalised. It is such levels that must be reached if there is to be real change for people in Egypt. I know that everyone in the Chamber wants that to happen as well. Christian women have been kidnapped and raped, and involved in relationships that they find abhorrent. Christian buildings and churches have not been repaired in some cases, but in fairness there has been some change on that. There has been rebuilding of churches, and protection, in Cairo.
The response to the saddening and shocking events at Sharm el-Sheikh is an example of exactly what is needed on every level. Britain, Germany and Russia, to name a few of the nations in question, have taken steps to co-operate further with the Egyptian Government to ensure that Sharm el-Sheikh can be a model for security at airports and show strength and resilience in the face of terror and cowardice. There is a young girl who works in my office as my researcher, and when she got married she had her honeymoon in Sharm el-Sheikh. At the time there was not any bother, and she recommended it for a holiday—a honeymoon is of course a bit better as a holiday—and an opportunity to enjoy some special time.
There is great development potential in the Nile delta. On our visit we hoped to see some of that development. With the water source there is agriculture and agribusiness, which create jobs and enable food to be grown, moving Egypt, with its massive population, towards some sort of self-sufficiency, if that is possible. Among various issues there has been talk of Ethiopia building a dam, which might cause some problems. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to respond on that, or give us an idea of where things are in that process, but Egypt can develop and create jobs. The resurgence of gas and oil and access to Egypt’s vast energy resources are of interest to everyone, and helping an ally to develop those resources is much better than relying on enemies for energy, as the west too often finds itself doing. BP and British Gas have found Egypt to be an ideal business partner recently, and utilising our relationship with Egypt to further voluntary co-operation and trade across the region will open up the prospect of prosperity to millions of oppressed people—a vast population who need employment. We should remember that they need prosperity as well as the peace we all continue to work for.
I have outlined an array of issues on Egypt, including the concerns of the all-party group. I have mentioned the role of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley as an envoy to Egypt, and there is already an apparatus that we can build on to ensure support from the United Kingdom. I hope that will help to ensure that what was once a towering pillar of stability and a beacon of hope in the Arab world can come roaring back to its former self and sit again at the top table of global powers and economies, alongside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing it. I thank him for the brief background he gave us, from his own experience, reminding us what a great country Egypt is, and what a much greater country it can become. It is, I think, the 16th biggest country in the world, and often we do not appreciate that. Not too long ago different cultures and traditions, and people of different faiths and none, could mix comfortably, respecting one another’s traditions but with the freedom to carry on their own. Clearly, that is what we want Egypt to return to.
We must recognise that Egypt belongs to the Egyptians, so in our dealings with them we must be careful. By all means we should encourage them to move towards the kind of society that we think the citizens are entitled to; by all means we should use diplomatic and other ties to try to develop the interests of the United Kingdom in relation to Egypt; but at all times we should respect the rights of Egypt’s citizens to choose a Government and un-choose them should they see fit.
I think we can see optimistic signs even in the behaviour of President Sisi. A lot of what he has done recently is completely unacceptable and contrary to any interpretation of international human rights law; that must be made clear to him. However, he has the potential to change course. There has been some sign of a small but welcome softening of attitude on law and order, for example. It is unacceptable that hundreds of people can be taken and sentenced to death almost at one time. Some of those death sentences have been commuted, and that is something we should encourage. President Sisi received military command training in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America, so he knows where the boundaries lie between using military means to ensure security and abusing military power to oppress either his own people or anyone else. He knows what is acceptable and what is not. I think there is something there that we can work with, which perhaps we do not have with some of the other dictators or semi-dictators in the region.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) rightly reminded us what can happen if someone who is elected democratically stops being democratic and is allowed to get away with that.
The persecution of religious minorities, to which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred, is something that we cannot afford to ignore. We should remember that the persecution of Christians is an anti-Islamic action in exactly the same way as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic persecution is an anti-Christian action. All of those faiths teach fundamentally that we are all free to take our own decisions and that we will all be held to account for those decisions at some point. We should not allow our concern for persecuted Christian minorities in Egypt or anywhere else to develop into a claim that it is somehow Islamic actions or an Islamic group of people that are responsible for those crimes and that persecution.
We need to ensure that when we talk about stability, we do not mean the stability there has been in some countries in the past, where stability meant military dictatorship. Often, if there is a brutal military dictatorship, there is stability, but it comes at the cost of the violation of the human rights of tens of millions of people. That, again, is not acceptable.
The influence that the United Kingdom can exert in Egypt comes from our shared history, since a lot of the history of Egypt has been closely bound up with that of the United Kingdom, and from the fact that the United Kingdom is now the single biggest foreign investor in Egypt. There is an avenue for the Government to encourage businesses that are investing in Egypt to invest in things that will help Egypt, not hinder it, and in projects that will support the development of a democratic society rather than simply prop up a discredited regime.
The Government must also continue to remind the Egyptian authorities that the United Kingdom has—or should have—a policy of not investing in Governments whose human rights record is poor and not showing signs of improvement. The carrot of investment would then be there, but the stick—the threat of that investment being stopped—could be used, not to ensure that Egypt develops into the country we say it should, but to allow and encourage Egypt to develop the fundamental principles that cross international borders such as human rights, the rule of law, respect for democracy and respect for diversity in society.
I believe there is a good possibility that if we play it right, we can help Egypt to develop back into the kind of society that will be in the best interests of its 90 million citizens. That means, for example, that we need to encourage the development of Egypt’s tourist industry and see the air routes into Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere reopened, but we should not just do that to give our people a nice place to go on holiday; we should do it because it helps to stabilise Egypt’s economy. Once the economy is stabilised, it will become much easier for ideas such as democracy and the rule of law to be re-established.
We have to be very careful indeed that we do not allow tourism to destroy the extraordinary and ancient culture that people are going to see in the first place. We cannot allow tourism to cause the Nile valley, for example, to become one great big western holiday resort—partly because that would be morally and ethically wrong, but also because that kind of behaviour creates a climate in which young Muslims growing up in Egypt will readily believe the myth that the country has been taken over by evil western heathens.
We have to be careful to ensure that allowing opposition groups to flourish without persecution in Egypt does not mean that terrorist groups or groups that espouse terror are allowed to develop undetected. I have a concern about the way that President Sisi has been treating the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be that some of its members are resorting to or promoting terrorism; if they are, they deserve to be taken through the courts and imprisoned. However, we have to be very careful indeed if we are outlawing the single biggest opposition party in any country simply because all its members are accused of being terrorists. Going in too heavy-handed in that way will create a climate where if young people who want a more Muslim society—whether we agree with that ourselves or not—do not have the right to promote their views through peaceful, lawful and democratic means, there are other avenues open to them that they may want to pursue. As has been said, there are others in Egypt and elsewhere who will be only too keen to encourage them to adopt such other methods.
Mention has been made of the high-performing UK ambassadorial staff. I have not met any of the embassy staff in Egypt, but I have certainly been very impressed with the embassy staff I have met in the other countries I have visited so far. The fact that the UK ambassador was prepared to speak out against the treatment of the three al-Jazeera journalists is an encouraging sign. That is the kind of diplomatic pressure that we should continue to apply.
Just this week, we saw a TV presenter in Egypt jailed for mocking a woman who came on a television programme to be interviewed about a claim she had made of sexual harassment. It is appalling for a TV journalist to suggest to an alleged victim of sexual assault that it was her own fault because she went out wearing jeans and a sleeveless top; that is not an acceptable way for a journalist or anyone else to treat a victim of crime. However, throwing someone into jail for that is an overreaction. I do not condone making videos that mock someone else’s religion, but it is a serious overreaction for the Egyptians to have thrown three young Christians in Egypt into jail for producing a video that appeared to mock Islam. In that case, the teenagers said they were mocking Daesh, not Islam. I do not agree with anyone mocking another’s religion, but I do not agree with throwing people into jail for doing that. There are other ways in which we can encourage respect for one another’s faiths.
I am concerned about an apparent shift in emphasis from the UK Government. Whether it is through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or any other Department, concern for promoting human rights in the countries in which we do business appears to be moving further down the order of priorities, while the promotion of interests of UK business and UK investors appears be to moving further up. I understand and support the desire to let British businesses prosper in other countries, but I ask the Government to ensure that we never do anything that is seen to give succour to those in either government or opposition who want to undermine the rule of law and democracy and those who may want to turn Egypt into a country that is a significant danger for us and for those who live there.
It is appalling that a young Italian student who had previously lived in the UK was taken away, tortured and murdered. It is also appalling that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Egyptian citizens live with the danger of the same thing happening to them. Many of them have died in similar circumstances. The torture and murder of an Egyptian citizen should appal us just as much as the torture and murder of an Italian or UK citizen. I want to see an Egypt where all 90 million Egyptian citizens can live in peace and harmony with one another.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate. He spoke with great experience and knowledge of Egypt and set it in its proper context; I think we all benefited from that introduction. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who spoke clearly and effectively about the horrific death of Giulio Regeni. I will say a little more about that later on.
The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) set out so well the context of Egypt in the region. She used what I thought was a very good phrase: “democracy was never going to happen as it does in Tunbridge Wells”. That was very telling. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as ever, stood up for religious freedoms and, of course, blushed at the offer of a holiday with the hon. Lady in Sharm el-Sheikh.
As we have heard, Britain and Egypt have a long, close and often tumultuous relationship, but Egypt remains a key ally for us in the middle east. We are key trading partners, and as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, the UK is the biggest source of direct investment into Egypt. More than 1,000 British companies invest in and operate in Egypt in sectors such as finance, energy, construction, pharmaceuticals and IT.
Of course, as the hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Bristol North West said, there are also the thousands of British tourists who visit each year, or would if they could get to Sharm el-Sheikh. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to update us on the progress made on restoring flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. Those flights are vital for the Egyptian economy, which desperately needs the summer season, and for British holidaymakers, who are already making their plans. In fact, numerous holiday firms, including Thomas Cook, are currently offering holidays to Sharm from May, so is the Minister confident that the security measures will be sufficient by then for flights to resume?
Egypt is, of course, more than just an economic partner to the UK; it is also an important strategic partner in the Arab world and a key ally in the fight against extremism, against Daesh and Assad in Syria, and in north Africa and the Sinai. We need to work with Egypt to tackle extremism, and we want it to do more to tackle terror financing. All of that gives us a very good reason to work with Egypt and, for those reasons, we need a stable Egypt.
It is clear that over the past two years, the Government have improved relations with Egypt. Since the election of President Sisi in June 2014, albeit on quite a small turnout, the Government have gone out of their way to build relations with the Sisi Government, and I welcome many aspects of this Government’s work to improve those relations. First, as I have said, it is very important that we co-operate on security and countering extremism. Secondly, as an MP for Hull, which is a key centre for renewable energy, I was very pleased to see the memorandum of understanding signed on a multibillion pound renewable energy deal with a British company. Thirdly, I am very pleased to see that 2016 is the year of British-Egyptian co-operation on science, innovation and higher education.
However, we have to remain critical friends of the Sisi regime. To promote stability, we need not just to support the Government of President Sisi, but to encourage his Government to tackle some of the underlying issues that have caused so much instability over the past few years. Stability requires respect for human rights, for the constitution and for democratic participation. It requires corruption to be tackled and the rule of law to be promoted, and we cannot promote academic co-operation and innovation unless we also promote academic freedoms.
The Amnesty International report from 2015-16 paints a bleak picture for those aspects of Egyptian society. The rule of law has been undermined by mass detentions and mass trials, which are rarely fair. The relationship between the state and its citizens has been undermined by routine allegations of police brutality, torture, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearances. The treatment of women is a particular concern in relation to sexual violence.
Respect for democratic institutions has been undermined by repeated attacks on freedoms of assembly and non-governmental organisations, and I am very concerned that those actions, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West said, are fuelling the disquiet that has previously led to problems and revolutions in Egypt, and are making it more difficult for there to be a transition to a fully stable democracy.
I am very pleased to have taken that intervention. I think that is a good sign—if there are more women in any Parliament, it is usually a good sign of progress, so I welcome that.
To get back to my point, it is important that the British Government should be prepared to make it clear to the Government in Egypt that we expect them to operate to a higher standard on human rights issues. It is in our interest to promote British values of human rights and democracy, and it is also in the interests of Egyptian stability for it to do the same. However, as an example of the Government’s reluctance to do that, I want to return to the case of Giulio Regeni, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. He set out so effectively what happened in the horrific murder of this academic and talked about what has been described—the systematic ripping out of fingernails, the broken ribs, and the brain haemorrhage that happened to this man. It is just appalling.
I raised some parliamentary questions with our Government to ask what their response was. I was told that the Government support the Egyptian and Italian investigations, but reports suggest that the Egyptian investigation is seriously flawed. The Italian ambassador has complained of a lack of access. There are real concerns about whether Egypt has the capacity to conduct a genuinely impartial investigation.
I wrote to the Minister on 16 February 2016 pressing upon him the importance of this case and the need for Britain to intervene to ensure that an impartial investigation takes place and to offer British assistance. I look forward to receiving a response from him. In particular, given that we are in this year of co-operation on education and research, I would think that the Government have had many opportunities to raise this case. There have been press releases, partnership agreements and a visit from the Prime Minister’s special envoy, but academic freedoms seem to have been excluded from that academic dialogue. We appear to have had a situation in which the Prime Minister’s special envoy was in Egypt discussing academic co-operation, weeks after the body of a murdered British academic was found, but as I understand it, that was not raised.
Other countries have not remained silent. The Italian Prime Minister Renzi stressed that it was because of his Government’s “friendship” with President Sisi that he stood in a position to demand the truth and stressed that it was critical for the future of Italian-Egyptian relations. The UK Government need to realise that it is because of the strength of our economic, social and security co-operation that we can also be in the position of critical friends. Weakness from the Government in not taking the matter up is not helpful. I hope that the Minister, in his response this afternoon, will be able to reassure us that he is having those conversations with the Egyptian authorities. I also look forward to him responding to the other points that I have raised, particularly on tourism.
It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship again, Mr Pritchard, and I echo the comments that have been made across the floor; this has been a very timely and important debate. I congratulate, as others have done, my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng)—my good friend—on securing this debate and on opening it with an exposé of his knowledge and understanding of what is happening not just in Egypt but in the region itself, and of Britain’s unique relationship and the role that Parliament is playing.
I want to say thank you to colleagues; it is because we are able to visit the country a number of times and develop relationships to understand what is going on that we can speak with some authority about matters there and have debates such as this in this House. We are all the wiser for that, and the relationship is all the stronger, so I am very encouraged. I have visited the country a number of times as a Back Bencher and as a Minister, and I know that Egypt very much appreciates such visits and appreciates the dialogue too.
We have heard some excellent contributions, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), has said. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) raised specific points, and the link is understandable given the academic connection with Giulio Regeni. I will come to that matter and speak in a bit of detail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) spoke of the challenges in Governments and the changes that have taken place. It is fair to say that any country that had endured the decade of change that Egypt has had to go through would have been severely tested. It is pleasing to see the direction of travel that Egypt is going in but, none the less, a huge amount of work still needs to be done. That is why Britain must stand firm in providing that support.
I was pleased that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) took a bit out of my speech by commenting on the importance and role of the trade envoy, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson); we are very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is able to take on that role. It underlines the significance of having these trade envoy positions, which allow detailed knowledge to be exchanged and for that relationship to be pursued. The hon. Member for Strangford also spoke of some of the military support that we are providing as Egypt deals with terrorism, and I will come to that in my speech, too.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) spoke of the importance of the continuing governance of reform and I very much agree. I am sad to say that he also made this very binary: either we challenge the human rights situation and therefore the prosperity agenda stops, or we are happy with the human rights situation and therefore prosperity can start. I am afraid it is not as simple as that. I should make it clear that our work and our relationship, which comes not just from the commercial angle, allow us to have frank conversations to the frustration of those who would like to see more in the public domain. We often find ourselves having greater leverage in and influence on what is going on behind the scenes because of the manner in which we conduct our activities, which is not always on the front pages of the newspapers.
I certainly did not intend to give the impression that the choice is between human rights on one hand and economic prosperity on the other. If I gave that impression, I apologise. The point I wanted to make was that Egypt gives us the best possible opportunity to demonstrate that respect for human rights, diversity and economic prosperity can all happen at the same time.
I will come to that point as I develop my argument.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North spoke in her usual formidable style and clearly understands these matters. We spar on a number of issues across the middle east and I thank her for the tone she adopts in these debates when putting forward extremely important points. She spoke first about the flight concern, which I will come to, and the case of the Italian student, the importance of the economy and, linked to that, stability and the opportunities in front of us. I am grateful for the points she made. As always, if I do not cover all the points that have been made, I will write to hon. Members in due course.
In the limited time available, I want to take a step back and place Egypt today in context. It is worth reminding ourselves that it is a cradle of ancient civilisation and a very proud part of the world. It has gifted to the world some of the earliest forms of central governance, literature and major feats of engineering. It connected the world with the Suez canal in the 19th century and has been a centre of Arab culture and regional political leadership in the 20th century.
In the Arab world, Egypt sits astride the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League and occupies a unique position in international affairs. Despite experiencing some tumultuous times in the 21st century, Egypt has delivered another major feat of engineering through expansion of the Suez canal in just one year under President Sisi. That truly represents Egypt’s ambition in looking forward.
Although not as long standing as Egypt’s ancient history, Britain’s interests are also deep and long standing in modern times and include an historical British presence, close business links, more recent efforts to bring peace in the region and working together on the UN Security Council. President Sisi’s visit to the UK in November was an important moment in deepening our relationship further and an opportunity to have those frank conversations I spoke about.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country, is on the frontline in the war against Daesh and in north-east Sinai, and has a critical role in bringing stability and security to Libya. Egypt is a vital partner in a troubled region. It is clear that its stability is in our interests. I am proud to say that since 2010 the UK has spent some £30 million in Egypt and we plan to spend a further £50 million between now and 2020. All this funding has the ultimate aim of helping to support the country’s continued stability. There are, of course, many aspects to stability. Our work in Egypt focuses on security, the economy, governance and education. I will take each in turn.
A number of hon. Members asked about security. The crash of the Metrojet airliner, the murder of a Croatian oil worker and the attacks on Egyptian troops make it clear that Egypt faces a real threat from terrorism, so security is key. To protect ordinary Egyptians, tackle radicalisation and safeguard tourists, we are working closely with the Egyptian Government, training bomb disposal officers and close protection officers, and welcoming military officers to Sandhurst and other prestigious military training establishments here in the UK. This will help to meet the threat emanating from north-west Sinai and the region.
Egypt’s greatest external security threat remains Daesh’s planning and launching of attacks from bases in eastern Libya. The UK is supporting Libyan efforts to finalise a Government of national accord, which is vital because only a unified national Government can begin the difficult work of restoring stability and tackling the threat posed by Daesh from the west of Egypt. In Gaza, the UK is providing aid and working to convince Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to take steps to improve conditions, which is in the interests of Egypt’s long-term security.
We are, of course, continuing our extremely close co-operation on aviation security so that we can resume flights as soon as possible. Sharm el-Sheikh is proven to be a clear favourite with tourists. Prior to the changes, almost 1 million visitors wanted to go to Egypt every year. I am unable to give further details, but huge efforts have been made. I spoke to the deputy National Security Adviser yesterday. Some final pieces of the jigsaw need to be put in place, but I hope it will not be too long before flights are resumed.
The hon. Member for Cambridge raised the very sad case of Giulio Regeni. I can only echo what I said in my reply to the question. We are very saddened by this tragic death and very concerned about the reports that he had been tortured. He is an Italian citizen and there is protocol on who can lead and participate in the investigation. Having said that, we have raised our concerns with the Italian authorities. We very much support Italian and Egyptian efforts to investigate and have requested that that be done in full to recognise what happened. The Italian police now have a team on the ground in Egypt. We will continue to raise the matter. I will be visiting the country very soon and will certainly ask further questions, but although the individual studied in the UK, there is a protocol on which country can lead and be involved.
Egypt has elected a President, has a new constitution and now has a Parliament, which is to be celebrated. We are working to help to make parliamentarians stronger and to encourage visits. I hope that the work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy will continue. As the new Parliament beds in, we want to do more to strengthen this vital institution and I hope that Members with a keen interest in Egypt, many of whom are here today, will be able to play an active role in that.[Official Report, 9 March 2016, Vol. 607, c. 3MC.]
We are looking to President Sisi and the Egyptian Government to make more progress on human rights—that has been echoed today—and on freedoms. We are concerned about detention of political and civil society activists and journalists, deaths and reports of torture in police detention and prisons, and the continued narrowing of space for civil society to operate freely. We continue to believe that respect for human rights is vital to effective governance for the Egyptian people and long-term stability
A vibrant economy is a necessary precondition for security and democracy. I am proud that Britain remains the largest foreign investor in Egypt. British companies have invested over £25 billion in recent years. I was pleased to lead the largest trade delegation to Egypt for 15 years when we had the pleasure of meeting President Sisi.
Education has an important role and I am pleased that the British Council has taught English to over 90,000 Egyptians in the last five years.
I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne a few minutes to respond so I will conclude. We remain a close and important partner of Egypt. I am grateful for this debate to underline our commitment to the country and pleased that other Members of Parliament have also been able to do so.
I am grateful for this wide-ranging debate in which we have hit many of the principal issues. The tragic death of Giulio Regeni stains Egypt’s reputation, but I am sure that with the Minister’s good offices our Government will do their part in bringing some form of closure and justice to the situation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered British support for stability in Egypt.