Last week European Union foreign affairs policy chief Catherine Ashton and her family were photographed on their Christmas holidays in Luxor visiting the Valley of the Kings and sailing the River Nile. According to the Middle East Media Center for Studies the EU chief also met with tourism minister Hisham Zaazou and civil aviation minister Abdel Aziz Fadel when she was there.
Hisham Zaazou has been minister of tourism since 2012. During the time of now ousted President Hosni Mubarak he was the first deputy minister of tourism. Abdel Aziz Fadel was appointed by the interim military-backed government 13 days after President Morsi was deposed and replaced Wael El-Maadawy, who was ousted with other members of Morsi’s government.
Ashton’s visit under the wing of the coup regime brings back memories of Tony Blair’s family holiday to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh as the guest of Mubarak’s government back in 2001. Blair attracted widespread criticism for accepting the trip largely for the influence it may have had on his approach towards the Middle East, and the endorsement it gave to a dictator who enforced emergency law for the entire length of his period in office, smothered freedom of press and arrested numerous political prisoners.
At the time of the former British Prime Minister’s visit, tourism in Egypt had been affected following a series of terrorist attacks; but photos of the Blair family posing outside the pyramids soon boosted numbers again. In a similar vein, since the 2011 revolution Egypt has suffered hugely from a plunge in visitors. Zaazou and the Federation of Tour Operators in India recently signed an agreement to attract one million tourists from India to Egypt. Ashton’s visit seems to be part of this new drive; as Zaazou said, “international personalities are sending messages that would have a huge positive impact on the tourism sector in Egypt.”
It’s not just Tony Blair who has been exposed for rubbing shoulders with the wrong people. In 2011 French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie resigned over criticism regarding her contacts with the now ousted Tunisian regime. She was accused of holidaying in Tunisia during the uprising and offering to send paratroopers to help suppress protests against the deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
This is not the first time the European Union has taken a controversial position on Egypt. Ashton may have been the first foreign diplomat to meet Morsi after he was ousted, but a high level EU delegation was one of the first foreign representatives to meet the military. Though she has criticised the use of force by the military-backed government, the EU stopped short of acknowledging events on 3 July as a coup. Towards the end of November Ashton confirmed that the EU would provide €90 million worth of financial assistance to the new government.
Given the severe crackdown on the opposition by members of the military-backed government in Egypt that have seen the arrest of journalists, minors, and the killing of thousands of protestors, Ashton’s timing is a completely inappropriate endorsement of their behaviour and reflects badly on the EU as a whole.