An Interview with Bernardino León, EU Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean

by Forum Staff

Bernardino León is the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for the Southern Mediterranean region. Mr. León was formerly Secretary General at the office of the Spanish Prime Minister, Sherpa for the G20, Advisor to the Special Envoy of the European Union for the Middle East, and Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He holds a Master in Law from the University of Málaga and a Master in International Relations from the Center of International Studies in Barcelona.

In an interview with The Fletcher Forum, Bernardino León discusses instability in Egypt and the position of the European Union to remain open to future dialogue with the Egyptian government.

FLETCHER FORUM: In few words, what is the position of the European Union on Egypt?

LEÓN: We believe that polarization, which is Egypt’s most important problem, is worsening. A very important part of society, which is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, is being excluded from the system. Furthermore, it does not seem that the current policies will allow Egypt to recover from its economic crisis, due mainly to lack of investment and tourism. Many of the people that are suffering the effects of the crisis will most likely join those showing their discontent. Therefore, our impression is that the ongoing events in Egypt, even if they grant some short-term stability, could lead into a more difficult situation in the long-term.

FLETCHER FORUM: The EU decided to ban its member countries from selling arms and military-related materials to Egypt, a measure aimed at putting pressure on the interim government. The EU, however, decided not to cut humanitarian aid and development projects. Is that measure going to be effective while the United States sends 1.5 billion dollars per year in aid, Saudi Arabia 5 billion and Qatar 3.5 billion? What kind of message are you intending to send?

LEÓN: The message we intend to send can be summarized in the following way: in the first place, it is a signal to the Egyptian authorities that, based on current circumstances, the relationship cannot continue as if nothing has happened. Second, we want to make it clear that, even while being extremely cautious about the events of the past, we maintain open channels of communication. We continue to believe that while there are moderate voices within the government—and it seems that there are—our policy must be to remain open and to avoid shutting the door on future dialogue. Finally, we think it is important to continue to support the most disadvantaged segments of Egyptian society, those affected by serious socio-economic problems. That is, so long as the support is offered directly by the EU or NGOs. As I said, we are open to cooperating with the government but with the hope that there is a clear direction. The Deputy Prime Minister of Egypt, Ziad Ahmed Bahaa-Eldin, recently presented a plan, which we believe is a moderate proposal that will move things in the right direction. However, we must be cautious and continue to support the moderates. It is clear that the solution for Egypt lies in the collaboration between moderates on both sides, working together towards a shared vision.

FLETCHER FORUM: To whom are you referring when you reference moderate voices within the government?

LEÓN: The several moderate partners in the government. I already mentioned Bahaa-Eldin, but there are others that we know of who want to reach out to the other side. Bahaa-Eldin is a good example because the government has accepted his proposal, and right now I believe that his is the most important voice among moderates. In the other party, there are also moderate voices. One of our regular partners within the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Ali Beshr, is a moderate voice. Another example of this moderate Egyptian political stratum is Saad El-Katatni, Secretary General of the Freedom and Justice Party. The EU and the United States have insisted that the release of political leaders will be necessary for effective dialogue.

FLETCHER FORUM: The EU initially supported president Morsi, but later viewed him with a certain hesitation. After the “ouster” (some, not the EU, have called it a “military coup”) of Morsi, the political panorama in Egypt has changed. Several weeks after the attack against the Muslim Brotherhood settlements, the group seems to be broken up. Many of its leaders are dead or in prison and a large number of its followers have been broken into factions, or at the least, weakened. Do you believe that a reinsertion of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political scene in Egypt is now possible or desirable?

LEÓN: It is a very complex situation. In just a few weeks they have lost the ability to assert power in a context in which they were the only political party that could have hoped to hold a majority. The next party, the recently divided Salafist Nour party, was an important political force, but it did not have the power or the capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood. From this position of supremacy, the Brotherhood has found itself in a situation where even their dissolving is being considered. On top of suffering many losses during the incidents over the past month, the majority of its leaders are imprisoned. In short, they have gone from having everything to having nothing, which is why it will be difficult for them to revise their strategies. A few weeks ago, the main element of their discourse was the restitution of president Morsi, but now—conscious of the gravitas of their situation—they are trying to find other ways out. Our hope is that the more moderate elements take control of the party and offer peaceful solutions and dialogue with the government. This would mean that the government would implement certain confidence measures that still do not exist and that do not seem to be on the table in the short term. One of these measures is the liberation of their leaders.

FLETCHER FORUM: Along this same line, do you believe that the decision to reconsider the imprisonment of Mubarak will help stabilize the situation?

LEÓN: It is not my job to judge the legality of that decision. If the legal system says that the maximum term period for detention established by Egyptian law has been fulfilled, that is how it will be. All Egyptians have the right to equal treatment before the law. However, from the political point of view, the situation does not seem so simple. Egypt is a country where there was a revolution against president Mubarak only two years ago. Taking such a course of action is not going to calm the radicals, which is exactly what is at issue right now. Even so, if what is really at stake is that all citizens be treated equally before the law, the principle of presumption of innocence seems important. If in the case against the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood there is not concluding proof against them and there is no sentence, from the legal point of view, they should be freed until the accusations are proven.

FLETCHER FORUM: In the note published by the Council of Foreign Affairs of the European Union on August 21, the Council expressed concern at the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt, especially after the reaction of factions within the Muslim Brotherhood against numerous Coptic churches. The Copts make up approximately 15 percent of the population, compared to 80 percent of Sunni Muslims. What is the situation for Christians, especially the Copts, in Egypt?

LEÓN: Coptic Christians lived in fear under the Morsi government. One of the major failures of this government has been failing to give assurances to the Coptic community. With this polarized environment, Coptics have played an important role in expressing their belief that the Muslim Brotherhood should not return to power. Some less moderate sectors within the Coptic spectrum envision the possibility of completely excluding the Brotherhood from the system. I would like to emphasize, without a doubt, that the European Union did not accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of being responsible for burning our churches. In the context in which we find ourselves, it is likely that other more radical members were involved. In Egypt, there are many who believe that acts of vandalism are not the responsibility of the Muslim Brotherhood but rather other radical sectors that seek to create a climate of chaos. We also do not believe we should accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of committing acts of terror in the Sinai Peninsula. We believe there are jihadist movements that are taking advantage of this confusing situation to complicate the picture further. This is why we have expressed that not all members of the Brotherhood are alike.  

FLETCHER FORUM: Can the instability in Egypt affect its neighbor countries? How is the current situation in Tunis and Libya?

LEÓN: Both Tunis and Libya are living in a moment of crisis that is not new. The situation in Egypt, however, might worsen it. In the case of Libya, the instability has reached the parliament. If we look at the Tunisian case, however, we can say without being too optimistic that there is a good chance that the government and opposition might reach an agreement. That would be excellent news, since Tunis is the country in the Maghreb with the strongest middle class and a relatively stable society. In Tunis’ biggest cities, women enjoy equality and play a role comparable to that played in other democratic countries. My impression is that Tunis is further down the path to democracy and stabilization than other countries in the region. This fact should facilitate its full transition and hopefully allow it to become an example and a source of hope for others in the region.

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