Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, was in Egypt this week for the opening of the ‘New Suez Canal’ (in fact an extension to the old Suez canal elaborately advertised), and took the opportunity to express Britain’s support for the military junta that installed itself in Egypt two years ago.
The presence of a senior member of the Cabinet at the opening ceremony is in itself a message of support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt that probably ought not be sent, but Fallon didn’t stop there.
After praising the authorities for building ‘a modern wonder’, he announced in the largest state-owned newspaper that Britain ‘stands shoulder to shoulder’ with Egypt and pledged Britain’s intentions to keep ‘strengthening Egypt’s hand against the terrorists’.
This is a regime that, having carried out a military coup, has locked up tens of thousands of people (hundreds of whom have died there), slaughtered perhaps 1000 protesters in the streets in a single day, opened secret jails in paramilitary barracks, and tried thousands of civilians in military courts, to name just a few examples.
The government is of course not alone in its support and defence of al-Sisi. The United States has firmly supported him and has quickly returned to arming and funding his continued subjugation of any dissent. Fallon is, in this sense, only following the lead of the US and its secretary of state John Kerry, whose embassies are now openly parroting the regime’s propaganda slogans.
However, even when he is speaking in defence of al-Sisi, Kerry usually allots a percentage of his time to half-heartedly calling for some restraint and the upholding of basic rights. The British government’s approach is in this sense even more extreme.
The reasons for this position were neatly described by Michael Fallon himself. ‘Egypt is strategically vital,’ he wrote, as the largest Arab country, the operator of the Suez canal, and a willing partner in counter-terror programs. This is the old formula of supporting and defending any old tyrant or king around the Persian Gulf in the interests of supposed security for international trade and business, regardless of the self-defeating consequences.
In Fallon’s defence, it takes considerable face to stand in Ismailia and announce that a country run by a military dictator has ‘rejected authoritarianism’. The city is home to the notorious Azouli military prison and not far from its equivalent (called Agroot) in Suez, which are perhaps some of the worst dungeons in the world.
The British government is climbing over Western and Eastern allies alike to gratify al-Sisi and is dirtying itself in the process. Anyone who does not think brutal authoritarianism should be supported and defended in the Middle East, whatever the costs, should start saying so, and more cogently.