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President Sisi: Visit

Volume 765: debated on Monday 2 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether it is appropriate for the President of Egypt, General Sisi, to visit the United Kingdom, in the light of the state of the rule of law and human rights in that country.

My Lords, Egypt is key to our national interests. We must work together on the immediate issues facing us, such as bringing stability to Libya, combating ISIL and countering extremism. The United Kingdom is also committed to supporting political progress and economic development in Egypt, which will be the foundations of its future stability. President al-Sisi’s visit to the United Kingdom will be an opportunity to hold an open and frank dialogue on all these issues and to develop a programme of practical co-operation.

Is the Minister aware that al-Sisi has been responsible for the murder of at least 1,000 unarmed protestors; used torture and rape on dissidents; imprisoned tens of thousands of political opponents, including elected MPs; denied medical aid to people in prison; and been responsible for a large number of disappearances? Egypt is becoming an incubator for ISIL because of his tyranny. He has also employed extrajudicial killing, corrupted the judiciary and held very swift trials, after which—and on very little that could be called evidence—the death penalty has been passed, including on a young woman studying for a master’s degree at Oxford, who was tried in absentia and has now been forced into exile. Is this a man who should be invited to Downing Street? Are we going to confront him with his tyranny?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has mentioned a number of different issues, all of which are serious. It is in Britain’s interests to work with President al-Sisi. Together, we need to combat terrorism and counter extremism, and thus help bring stability to Libya. We also need to talk candidly about Egypt’s long-term future. Reforms that revitalise the economy and political progress are the foundation for long-term stability.

My Lords, we have recently lavished hospitality on the President of China, where, as we heard in the answers to an earlier Question, there are gross abuses of human rights and the ruling clique presumes to tell people how many children they can have. We will shortly be lavishing similar hospitality on Narendra Modi, who until recently was excluded from this country and the United States for possible genocide against the Muslim community in India. We are rushing around trying to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which is one of the most barbarous regimes in the Middle East. Would it not be discriminatory even to think of excluding President al-Sisi from these human rights abusers?

My Lords, the noble Lord has mentioned a number of different areas which are a little wide of the subject of this Question. We want to see more progress in Egypt, including better protection of Egyptians’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression, along with more space for NGOs and civil society, all of which are key to long-term stability. Our relationship with Egypt lets us raise these issues, and Ministers and officials regularly do so. The President’s forthcoming visit is a further opportunity to raise issues of concern.

My Lords, the Minister has said twice that we are going to discuss political progress with President al-Sisi, and I think many of us would agree that Egypt will be stable only if it allows political progress to be made. Can he tell us what sort of political progress for Egypt we have in mind?

A number of issues have been raised by Peers around the House and we want to see progress on all of them.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the UK will unequivocally raise concerns about the flagrant and wide-ranging abuses of human rights presided over by President al-Sisi? Can he also confirm that there will be absolutely no negotiation or agreement on the transfer of any arms or equipment that could be used for internal repression?

My Lords, as I said before, we will raise these issues with President al-Sisi and his Ministers. On the arms situation, as the noble Baroness will be aware, this is a highly regulated regime and we try to ensure that Egypt remains subject to the EU Foreign Affairs Council-agreed suspension on arms exports. The suspension means that licences are suspended if we judge that they might be used in internal repression. We assess all applications from Egypt against the EUFAC suspension threshold and the consolidated criteria.

My Lords, is it not always the prime duty of the British Government, of whatever party, to protect the interests of the United Kingdom? That often means talking to and welcoming people of whose internal policies we may not wholly approve. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, has just mentioned one or two. This visit should go ahead and the President should be made welcome, but he should also be in no doubt that there are concerns in this country about certain internal aspects of his policies.

My noble friend is quite right. Egypt is on the front line in the war against ISIL and other forms of extremism. It is the biggest country in the Arab world and the biggest destination there for British tourists, with almost 1 million visitors per year. It is also hosting people who have been displaced by crises in neighbouring countries.

My Lords, are the Government aware that in the name of Islam the Government of Egypt are abusing the rights of women, hence the attraction of other resisting groups who are promising to respect Islam, although we do not know that they will do it? What the Government of Egypt are doing is unIslamic. They are not granting women their rights. What will this Government do at least to demand that the Government of Egypt act according to what they state their aims are?

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned women’s rights. We welcome the provisions for the protection of women’s rights under the new constitution adopted in January 2014 and a law passed in June 2014 criminalising sexual harassment for the first time. The new law has led to several convictions. We have also deployed a regional gender adviser to our embassy in Cairo to strengthen the quality of our programmes in Egypt and across the region by focusing on gender equality.

My Lords, taking into account what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, asked earlier, does the noble Earl agree that in a progressive democracy it is in everybody’s best interests if the Government’s concerns are expressed openly and transparently so that we all know of those concerns publicly?

The noble Lord is right in so many ways. President al-Sisi will be visiting the United Kingdom later this week and no doubt there will be reports on what is discussed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the British Egyptian Society, which is a cultural organisation dealing with educational and cultural links with Egypt. Does the Minister accept that it was under the previous regime of the Muslim Brotherhood that many women in Egypt lost their rights? Many of the women I know told me—perhaps the noble Earl has had similar experiences—that they were asked to wear the hijab when they had never worn it before; warned not to apply for jobs in public services; and told not to expect the same pay rises and promotion opportunities as their male counterparts. They said that under this regime that, at least, has improved.

With her great knowledge, the noble Baroness makes some very interesting points and I agree wholeheartedly.