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World

The EU's balancing act in Egypt

The European Union is scrambling to help mediate the conflict in Egypt. The bloc's foreign ministers are set to discuss whether to freeze aid to Cairo, but Brussels is struggling to find a common approach.

In August, even ministers usually get to take some time off. Yet most of the EU diplomats and officials might have already suspected that this year, their vacation would be cut somewhat short. Over the past weekend, Council President Herman von Rompuy and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU would in the coming days reconsider its relations with Egypt.

On Wednesday, the bloc's foreign ministers will try to find a common position. "It won't be easy," according to Bernardino Leon, Commission Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean. Leon just returned form Egypt and says it will be a mammoth task. The 28 countries are working on defusing the violent tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military-backed interim government.

Ägypten Kairo Gewalt Ausschreitung Zerstörung Muslimbrüder

EU representatives have had no luck mediating the conflict

Doing more damage than good?

In reaction to the authorities' violent crackdown last Wednesday, a number of EU countries like Denmark and Germany have already taken first steps and cut their development aid to Cairo. This week, the foreign ministers hope to push trough a block on all arms deliveries and a freeze on aid money and loans.

Mostly, it's about a 5-billion-euro package ($6.7 billion) that the EU last year had promised to Egypt. Together with the US, Brussels could also prevent or postpone Egypt from getting some additional 3.6 billion euros in loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Some EU member states so far are rejecting the idea to stop the cash flow - for fear that such measures would even worsen the situation of the people in Egypt, instead of encouraging the government to return to the negotiating table.

The diplomatic skills of the foreign ministers will be put to the test. "It's not easy for the EU to decide whether they want to axe financial aid to Egypt," EU expert Josef Janning of the German Council on Foreign Relations told DW. "It would weaken the already poor structure of civil society. On the other side, the Europeans won't be able to continue and pretend that nothing happened." Janning believes that most likely, the EU would renew its offer to help with talks - should the two sides agree to sit down and talk again.

Saud Al-Faysal Außenminister Saudi Arabien

The Saudis appear willing to offer a helping hand to Egypt

Limited room for the EU

As much as Brussels wants to apply pressure to bring about an end to the violence, it seems its power and that of the West is limited. The US and the EU are indeed the largest suppliers of humanitarian aid to Egypt; from the US alone, Egypt has received a yearly sum of $1.3 billion since the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement of 1979.

However, Egypt does have alternatives. Saudi Arabia announced on Monday that it would be prepared to cover the funds that may possibly be revoked from Egypt with a one-off 9-billion-euro installment. "The Arab and Muslim states are rich and won't hesitate to extend a helping hand to Egypt," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Who is supporting the West?

The Arab and Muslim world is keeping a close eye on how the international community has reacted to the situation in Egypt. The Europeans and the US have made clear steps in an attempt to mediate the conflict; Brussels' Catherine Ashton and Germany's Guido Westerwelle both went to Cairo to establish dialogue between the two factions. But it didn't take either representative long to see that their words - though politely welcomed - wouldn't get very far.

EU Ägypten Bernardino Leon

Leon: 'The EU faces a mammoth task in Egpyt'

On the contrary, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi made it clear that the "time for diplomacy" had past. Egypt, in his eyes, has seen enough mediation from abroad. "The interim government is not happy about being criticized by the Europeans," Janning told DW. "They are, after all, in a fight against terror and violence at the moment."

The Muslim Brotherhood, at the same time, is "disappointed" that the Europeans didn't react strongly enough to the "coup" of the Egyptian military.

'Very complicated situation'

Whether or not aid for Egypt will be frozen, Brussels has said it won't give up attempts at mediation. "We believe that there are still democratic forces at work in Egypt," said Bernardino Leon, "and we will seek these out in a bid to work together constructively." But: "It is a very complex situation."

But it is one that the Europeans can't simply ignore. The country is too important for maintaining security in the entire region.

"Egypt is a crucial strategic partner … Perhaps our most important."

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