Hugh Robertson responds to Parliamentary debate on Egypt

Hugh Robertson responds to a back bench MP’s debate on the political and economic situation in Egypt.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Havard, and I thank you for your declaration of interests. I suspect in common with many other hon. Members, I always find it reassuring to have someone in the Chair who knows something about the subject. It is good to see you here. I know that it is customary in the House not to acknowledge people in the Strangers Gallery but, I am sure on behalf of everyone here, I pay tribute to the work of the Egyptian ambassador in London and his staff. He is a charming and well-informed representative of his country. I am sure we all want to put on record our gratitude for his work.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing a debate on this important issue of the political and economic situation in Egypt. It would be sensible to say at once and on the record that I am sure I speak for everyone in condemning the violence in Egypt over the weekend, when more than 60 people were killed and many were injured. All our thoughts are with the families of those affected. If the report in this morning’s press that the police chief in Cairo was shot overnight is correct, I am sure that again I speak for everyone here in saying that our thoughts are very much with his family and his colleagues in the Egyptian police. As came through in every contribution this morning, everyone wants all Egyptians to resolve their differences peacefully and to refrain from violence.

Egypt is in the middle of a political transition, which began three years ago in January 2011, in Tahrir square. Since then, the Egyptian people have seen three Governments: the military-led Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule; and, since July 2013, an interim Government. This is a crucial time for Egypt’s future and long-term stability. As many have said, the referendum on the draft constitution that was held on 14 and 15 January was an important milestone on the political road map and allowed millions of Egyptians to express their opinion through the ballot box. Egyptians are now looking ahead to see what kind of political process will take shape over the next six months. We expect the presidential election to proceed, followed by parliamentary elections in the summer. Both will be crucial to Egypt’s transition and to the country’s political and economic trajectory for years to come.

I will go through the various contributions and respond, if I can, to the points that have been made My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne—I am delighted that CMEC still takes people to countries throughout the middle east—made a fair and balanced speech. He is absolutely right that the situation is very nuanced and that there is no easy right or wrong. Crucially, he made it clear how important Egypt is to us as a country and to the region. It has an unparalleled place in history, which was a point also made by the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). Egypt is vital to the security of the region, as the major Sunni state in that part of the world.

This country is Egypt’s largest direct foreign investor. At the height of the tourism boom, in about 2008, some 1.5 million British tourists went to visit Egypt. This country and Egypt have many areas of mutual interest. As many Members have said, Egypt has a young and emerging population, and many of them want to learn English, which is crucial to their economic future. We have also just seen a London football club in the premier league sign a young Egyptian starlet, so I am sure that many more Egyptian fans will be watching English football.

The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), who has left the Chamber, was right to talk about the importance of an inclusive process. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made a good point, which came out when I was in Egypt in the week before Christmas: the problem with the Muslim Brotherhood Government was not one of ideology, but that they were simply incompetent, as a number of people said to me. They almost brought the country to its knees. I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s hope that a democratic Government will emerge.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned something that I will certainly take up. I have not yet seen the letter from the NUJ, but we will look for it when we get back to the office, and I will read it and ensure that those matters are taken up by our embassy in Cairo. I shall come on to the issue of religious and ethnic minorities in a minute, but I thought that the hon. Gentleman was right about the Muslim Brotherhood—he may find it strange my agreeing with him—because by sheer force of numbers it will be an important force in Egypt for many years to come, as it has been for many years already. Finding an accommodation with it will be crucial to the long-term political stability of Egypt. By the same token, however, the Muslim Brotherhood must commit to a democratic process. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that. Until it does, that makes it very difficult for the Government of Egypt.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I often talk about religious things. He is absolutely correct to draw the attention of the House to the plight of Christians. When I was in Cairo in the week before Christmas, we specifically asked to see the Copts. We do not have the facility to ask everyone in the Chamber, but I suspect that if I asked Members how many Copts there were in Egypt they would probably pick a reasonably small number. I was amazed to find, however, that the answer is 10 million to 12 million, which is a considerable number.

The Coptic pope was away from Cairo on travels, but I met a couple of the bishops. We had a positive, delightful, informed and structured talk on the political situation in Egypt. I have to report to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that they were enthusiastic about the new constitution and thought that it was a step forward. As is often the case with senior bishops, the bishop I met was sensitive about the previous Government, but it was clear that life for the Copts had not been easy under the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, I heard that evening how the Ministry of Tourism in Cairo traditionally issues licences for Christmas celebrations, but when it tried to license the first Christmas celebrations under the Muslim Brotherhood Government it was told not to do so. It was therefore unable to license Christmas celebrations over that period. This year alone, 94 or 97 licences—I cannot remember the figure—were issued, so licences are being issued once again. For all the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman correctly drew attention, it was clear from my conversation that the Copts felt that they were in a much better place now than was the case a year before.

The right hon. Member for Warley again made a good and well-balanced speech. I do not worry about the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), because we have tried to ensure that he has a valuable week in Beirut by helping him to get the right briefing. I hope that that is worth while. I join the right hon. Member for Warley in paying tribute to the work of the United States Secretary of State in seeking a wider peace agreement throughout the middle east. The energy and commitment that he has put into that initiative has been second to none and we support those efforts. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to the importance of capacity building. I used to be a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in a previous life, and it and many other organisations will play a crucial role.

If there are no other questions, I will conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne again for securing this valuable and timely debate. For the record, this country’s relationship with Egypt is a long-standing one, and I want that relationship to be constructive and positive. We will continue to do everything that we can to support the Egyptian people in their country’s ongoing political and economic transition, although on occasion we will need to express our concerns about human rights and democratic principles. It is important that the political process is inclusive, and that is what the people of Egypt were looking for three years ago. We continue to believe that that will be the best route to long-term stability, security and economic success in the area.

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