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Traversing Divisions: Arab League and EU Meet in First Desert Summit

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(1st row, from L) European Council President Donald Tusk, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker pose for a family picture during the first joint European Union and Arab League summit at the International Congress Centre in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on February 24, 2019. Photo AFP

The Arab League and European Union (EU) agreed to strengthen cooperation in the first summit held between the two blocs in Sharm al-Sheikh, a desert resort town in Egypt. Irregular migration and counterterrorism featured high on the agenda of the two-day event, which began on 24 February 2019.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has long pushed for stronger ties with the Arab League, which she is believed to consider an important part of her legacy. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also welcomed the summit, no doubt hoping that talks with Europe will elevate Egypt’s stature in the Arab world.

Despite the display of unity, neither side could agree on a final summit statement. EU and Arab League foreign ministers also failed to agree on a text after Hungary objected to a section on migration.

The document, once approved, will be the blueprint for how both sides can cooperate to mitigate the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. It is a tall order, thanks to the various strongmen who are undermining multilateral cooperation. Nevertheless, the summit was deemed a success for simply bringing so many heads of state together in one place.

“The fact that the summit was held was in itself a success,” said Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary general of the Arab League, to al-Monitor, a regional news website. “To offer all those leaders the opportunity to talk to each other increases the chances of understanding. That in itself is an achievement for a first gathering of its kind.”

Notably absent was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been under intense scrutiny following the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October. Also absent was Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed in Darfur and now faces mass protests at home. Bashar al-Assad of Syria was not present either, although his return into the Arab fold has started.

In the long run, the EU hopes to get Egyptian coastguards to pick up migrants leaving Libya and return them to the African mainland. Much like the readmission agreement signed with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, al-Sisi is banking on his rule being legitimized despite his appalling human rights record.

Most telling was the summit’s slogan, ‘Investing in Stability.” Al-Sisi has preached a similar sentiment to justify proposed constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in power for another 15 years. Rights groups and analysts say that Egypt would officially become a dictatorship if the amendments are adopted. That does not seem to concern the EU.

Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian researcher at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, argued that Europe is still trying to address the consequences of migration rather than the causes.

“Despite admitting a link between despotism and terrorism, [EU states] do not seem willing to take the bold step and support democratic transition in the region,” he told al-Jazeera. “On the contrary, they seem willing to support Arab autocrats so that they can help them secure their borders and seal them in the face of refugees.”

Other Arab states said they are reluctant to sign readmission agreements with Europe. The Arab League has also rejected any proposal to establish camps on its soil to process migrants fleeing repression and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Divisions within the EU is further hindering cooperation on migration. While Hungary and Poland completely reject the Global Migration Pact and the prospect of taking refugees, other states like Italy say they want refugees to be redistributed across the EU.

Divisions in the Arab camp also exist. Many Arab leaders have an issue with Qatar, which sent low-level delegates to the summit. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt all severed diplomatic ties with the tiny emirate in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism.

The one topic everyone seemed to agree on is the fate of Palestine. Mogherini said that both blocs support a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital. That said, al-Monitor columnist Shahira Amin wrote that Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record was the ‘elephant in the room’.

Just days before the summit, Egypt executed nine people who were convicted of murdering prosecutor Hisham Barakat in 2015. Rights groups said that the trials were grossly unfair and that the defendants’ confessions were extracted under torture. That was allegedly also the case for six men who were hung in 2014, after they were convicted of killing a judge’s son and murdering a police officer a year earlier.

In its 2019 global report, Human Rights Watch added that Egyptian police are notorious for using torture and forced disappearances to silence political dissent. The report concluded that Egypt’s human rights crisis is the worst in decades.

But the EU seems willing to overlook al-Sisi’s repression to further its interests in the Middle East. An exchange between al-Sisi and European Council President Donald Tusk nonetheless exposed tensions between the two blocs.

“You are not going to lecture us about humanity. You must respect our values and ethics,” al-Sisi told a European reporter, after being asked about rights abuses in Egypt. “The priority for European nations is to give people prosperity. Our priority is to safeguard our nations and prevent them from collapsing.”

His answer elicited loud applause from local journalists, all of whom risk prison if they criticize Egypt’s ruler. In response, Tusk remarked, “I really appreciate how enthusiastic your media are. It’s impossible in Europe to get such a reaction. Congratulations.”

Despite the back and forth, the two blocs agreed to hold another summit in 2022 to hash out a more concrete plan for cooperation.

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