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Volume 746: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the Egyptian army’s removal of the country’s elected President yesterday, what action they are taking to encourage Egypt to return to democratic government as soon as possible.

My Lords, we are concerned about the prospects for democracy in Egypt. As the Foreign Secretary said in his press statement, the UK does not support military intervention to resolve disputes in a democracy. We want to see a civilian-led Government and prompt, free and fair elections in which all parties are able to take part. We are in touch with political leaders to stress the need for political solutions that can unite Egyptians behind a legitimate democratic outcome.

My Lords, I am sure that we would all agree with every word that the noble Baroness said, particularly in respect of a return to civilian democratic government as soon as possible. One of the problems in the last election in Egypt was that there were two sectarian non-liberal parties standing for election as opposed to 40 secular liberal parties. Of course, Her Majesty’s Government cannot intervene directly, but is it possible for them to encourage agencies that already work with the Department for International Development on these issues, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to advise and mentor the profusion of secular liberal parties in Egypt in order to provide effective party organisation, which is so necessary in any democratic society?

My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, I am always incredibly cautious about intervening in a way where we are trying to affect the outcome of elections in any country, but I take the noble Baroness’s point about working with parties in preparation for an election. Indeed, that is what we have been doing through the Arab partnership fund. I know from my experience when I was in Egypt that the opposition appeared to be fractured, but the current situation is much more complicated. The National Salvation Front, the Tamarod, the main group that has been calling for the protests against President Morsi that have resulted in the current situation, has secular parties in it, but alongside the Defence Minister yesterday when the announcement was made that President Morsi would be removed was the Sheikh al-Azhar and the head of the Coptic Church. This is not just a pure fight between secularists and parties that feel that religion should be part of the state. It is much more complex than that. We are urging all parties to go back to a democratic process. Military intervention is not the way forward.

My Lords, having met the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo after the fall of President Mubarak, does the Minister share my disappointment that Mr Morsi clearly was either unable or unwilling to recognise that democracy means governing not on behalf of the minority who elected you but on behalf of the whole country? In any renewed election, that is the appeal that must go out from the rest of the world.

The journey to democracy is a long and hard process. Along the way there will be many challenges. Indeed, it took us hundreds of years to get to the point where we had an effective democracy. I take my noble friend’s point that this had to go beyond elections; there had to be an inclusive process and there have been challenges along the way. It is important that we understand that, although some of the concerns that were being raised by the opposition were of course right in terms of progress on the economy and progress on inclusivity, concerns were also raised that President Morsi was seen as being too close to the US and too close to the Qataris—partners, of course, with whom we work incredibly closely. That is why it is important to go back to saying that military intervention to deal with disputes is not the way forward in Egypt. Parties must return to a democratic process and then be prepared to stand behind the results of that democratic process.

My Lords, the United States has a very clear position on overseas development assistance in response to military coups. What will be the position of the British Government in relation to Egypt’s overseas development assistance following the events of the past 24 hours?

I think that the most constructive way in which both the United Kingdom and our partners can play a role is to ensure that we continue to support the people of Egypt in getting back to a democratic process. I do not feel that an immediate decision to disengage would be the right way forward.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that two days ago when I asked her about the intelligence that we might have received about military intervention, she replied,

“it has helpfully been indicated that there is no intention for there to be a military coup”?—[Official Report, 2/7/13; col.1079.]

Does she agree that we need to re-examine the sources of information on which Ministers base their replies in the House? Does she also agree that we need to examine carefully the kind of constitution that is likely to emerge as the army now imposes what it calls caretaker rule? In the new Egypt, if there is no regard for Muslim minorities such as the Shias who were lynched last week in a Shia village, for the Copts whose daughters and women have been abducted, sometimes raped, or for the secularists, who also want the right of full citizenship, and if those things are not guaranteed, there can be no chance for Egypt in the future.

My Lords, Egypt can move forward only if all parties and all citizens within Egypt feel that they have a stake and a role to play in any future democratic outcome. I take the noble Lord’s point, but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on intelligence matters at the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, apparently there were just as many anti-American placards as there were anti-Morsi placards in Tahrir Square. Could the Minister please outline what discussions the UK Government are having with the American Government to ensure that neither country is seen as supporting any future Egyptian Government who seem to be on a trajectory towards a theocracy?

My noble friend makes an important point, to which I was alluding earlier. The campaign of the opposition, the Tamarod, has been incredibly complex and has many facets to it—including not enough progress on economic reform and of course not enough progress on inclusivity—but there is an anti-US, anti-western undertone to much of what has been seen on the streets. It is important, however, that we also take into account the will of the Egyptian people, which is best expressed through a democratic process. It is important that that process takes place quickly and that, once that process has taken place, we work with the leaders chosen by the Egyptian people.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister rightly reminded us of the very slow progress towards mass democracy in the history of this country. We went though having, first, freedom and the rule of law, then constitutional government and then democracy. Democracy was the icing on the cake. Does the Minister not agree that there is not much point in having the icing if you do not have the cake?

My Lords, as your Lordships can probably tell, I like icing and cake. My noble friend makes an important point. It took us hundreds of years to come to the conclusions and deal with the issues to which he refers and there were long and bloody disputes over the role of the church and the role of the state. These are discussions that are taking place in Egypt and, of course, across the Middle East and north Africa. We now require strategic patience. We must allow this process to take place. Of course, there will be many bumps along the way, but it is important that all parties are allowed to take part in any future democratic process. That is why, among other things, we have this morning called on the authorities to free any Muslim Brotherhood senior figures; it is important that they, too, can take part in any future democratic elections.

My Lords, in her response on Tuesday, the noble Baroness said that we do not try to tell people what to do and that it was a matter for them. I hope that she will accept today that nothing in my question—or, indeed, in that of my noble friend Lady Symons—suggests anything else. Over the years, the FCO has facilitated local discussions in Egypt and worked through public diplomacy briefs and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It has been friendly help, not interference. I think that we were given something of an assurance today that there will be discussions. However, the House is entitled to know in a little more detail how we are going to set about that. Otherwise, it seems to be against a background where it is very hard to make any assessment of what is likely to happen, when it will happen and what impact we think we will have.

I think that the noble Lord would accept that for the Foreign Office to outline that, and for me to do so at the Dispatch Box, within 16 hours of what has happened in Egypt would be completely inappropriate and incorrect. We need to be patient. We need to understand the situation on the ground. We need to see how things play out over the next 24 to 48 hours. Of course, we have our ambassador and officials on the ground who are looking at this, but it is important that we play a supportive and helpful role rather than being seen to be leading an agenda that clearly must be led by the Egyptian people. The noble Lord must be careful if he expects the Foreign Office or this Government to act in a knee-jerk fashion to anything that happens around the world.