When might we draw the line and refuse to supply weapons to another State? Egypt might be a case for consideration. For the last 6 years a war has been raging in Northern Sinai. We hear little about it because Northern Sinai has been a closed military zone throughout, with all journalists and aid organisations banned, but half a million civilians live there, caught between two evils. On one side is Wilayat Sina, a Daesh-affiliate who have kidnapped, tortured, shot and beheaded hundreds of innocent people, killed and maimed hundreds more with improvised IEDs, and were probably responsible for the 2017 attack on the al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai that killed at least 311 people. On the other side is the biggest Egyptian military presence in Sinai since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. 40,000 troops who, together with police and local armed militias (government employed armed thugs with links to organised crime) are responsible for thousands of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. The militia add the settling of personal scores to the mix. Witnesses describe victims taken out to ‘die in shootouts’ even though they have no gun. Survivors describe beatings and electrocutions. There is no impunity.
Human Rights Watch has just compiled a report based on testimony of escapees, human rights organisations, soldiers, journalists, State officials, and on official statements, social media posts, media reports and satellite footage, describing the lives of civilians in the area as ‘a nonstop nightmare of abuses’ and accusing Egypt of war crimes. It says government forces have arrested over 12,000 people there since 2013, many forcibly disappeared, some extrajudicially killed, with evidence of victims dying under torture. Egypt’s State Information Service admits arresting 7300 dismisses the rest as lies. This is reminiscent of President Sisi’s January CBS interview in which he responded to Human Rights Watch’s claim that Egypt has 60,000 political prisoners by insisting that they have none, only imprisoned ‘extremists’ whose trials ‘may take years.’
It is easy to ignore a corner of Egypt where tourists don’t go when you have trade to think of, and so, with dull predictability, the West is supplying weapons to this vast abusive military operation. The US and France head the list, but the UK has a small piece of the action, having supplied Egypt with a mere £23m worth of military equipment over the last three years. This includes over £4m of machine guns. You can win a lot of desert shootouts with unarmed suspects with those. In trade terms, though, it’s paltry and we would like more. Our government has held multiple trade meetings with Egypt since 2013, and our Defence & Security Organisation, displaying wilful ignorance of what its goods are used for, identifies it as ‘core market’ for our arms trade.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we instead took the view that since the guns we supply seem likely to be used on innocent people, the President has an abysmal human rights record and a problem with the truth, and the sums involved are trivial in trade terms, its time to draw that line? If only.