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House of Lords Hansard
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02 July 2013
Volume 746

Question

Asked By

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of recent demonstrations and civil unrest in Egypt.

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My Lords, over the last few days we have witnessed some very large demonstrations in Egypt. Although they have been largely peaceful, we remain concerned about reports of violence and in particular by the large number of reported rapes and sexual assaults. We urge everyone to do all they can to prevent this. We call on all sides to work together to resolve the current situation in a manner that brings stability to Egypt and helps it complete its transition to democracy.

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I thank my noble friend for her Answer. As more than 14 million Egyptians from both rural and urban locations took to the streets, this morning President Obama telephoned President Morsi to say that democracy is about more than just elections. The time period outlined by the demonstrators runs out this very afternoon. What will Her Majesty’s Government do today to support the Egyptian people, who are attempting to ensure that the January 2011 revolution delivers a Government who respect the social, political and religious rights of all Egyptians?

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I agree with my noble friend. It is absolutely right that democracy goes beyond just elections. As noble Lords are aware, there has been an ongoing issue about the Egyptian constitution. There has been much toing and froing, both in relation to that and also to the electoral law, which has passed between the emergency Shura Council and the Supreme Constitutional Court. We urge all parties to engage with the democratic process. It is important that democracy is allowed to succeed, and we urge protestors to protest peacefully and ensure that they are engaged in the democratic process.

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My Lords, is the Minister able to give us any clearer intelligence about precisely what the Egyptian defence Minister meant when he said that the Egyptian army would intervene within 24 hours if there was no resolution of the conflict between the protestors and the Morsi Government? Does she agree that the last year has been a year of lost opportunities? Does she also agree that the attempts to impose Sharia law, and the failure to protect secularists and the substantial Coptic community in Egypt, are two of the reasons why protestors are again in Tahrir Square?

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The noble Lord is of course familiar with the reports in the press about what the defence Minister said. However, it has helpfully been indicated that there is no intention for there to be a military coup. It is anticipated that this period may allow President Morsi to engage with and reach out to members of the opposition. We have concerns—and indeed have made statements—about the imposition of religious controls through the constitution. I had discussions with both the Sheikh al-Azhar and the new Coptic Pope in February of this year, during which these concerns were raised. It is important that freedom of religion, which includes the freedom not to have a religion, is absolutely respected within Egypt.

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My Lords, perhaps I may follow that up. The vulnerability that the religious minorities of Egypt have experienced since the departure of President Mubarak was brought home during the visit last week of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to Cairo, where he met and heard from the leaders of a number of Egypt’s religious communities. Can the noble Baroness tell us what is being done to encourage and support religious leaders who build relationships across divides to provide a public voice for calm and non-violence, and what guarantees have been sought to protect Christian minorities in the event of an escalation of violence?

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The visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Egypt was timely, and of course we are concerned about the ongoing violence, especially the violence which occurred in April at the Coptic church, St Mark’s Cathedral. We are engaged in a number of projects in Egypt through the Arab Partnership. Some £1.7 million has been allocated for 2012-13, and many of the projects involve grass-roots work with community organisations from different faiths to create a sense of understanding. It is important that the discussions and dialogue remain open, and I understand that there is an ongoing dialogue between al-Azhar and the Coptic Church.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the detail of her response about an acute problem where demonstrations are growing in size and deaths have been recorded, where the army has threatened intervention, and where President Morsi says that he has no plans whatever to change policy, despite resignations from his own Government. Formal statements have been made by President Obama, and the United Nations has issued two statements. Mr Hague has encapsulated our Government’s position in 140 characters —he has tweeted. He says that he is concerned, and so am I, but I wonder if that is the way to express the gravitas of the United Kingdom in these circumstances. What advice has been given to our ambassador on an engagement with the contending forces to achieve a democratic and pluralist settlement that reflects a serious view from this country?

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I take issue with what the noble Lord has said. He will be aware that the Prime Minister was one of the first leaders to go into Egypt after the revolution. The Foreign Secretary has visited, as has the Minister with responsibility. We are incredibly engaged in the process, as is our ambassador. I think that the noble Lord will also agree that it is important that we are not seen to be deeply involved in telling the Egyptian people how they need to resolve this matter. We express our concern, we support them through projects and we make known our views. However, I do not think it is always necessary to engage in involvement by interfering in every aspect of local democracy.