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UK arms export to Egypt (2012-2022)

Country overview

The Arab Republic of Egypt has one of the fastest-growing populations with an estimated population of 102 million. Egypt has a semi-presidential system of government, but after former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, the parliament was dissolved, and the constitution was suspended. Egypt has since been subject to political instability and the population has been exposed to extreme violations of fundamental human rights carried out by the authorities. The current country’s president is Abdul Fattah al-Sisi who has been in power since 2014 when he took power in a military coup.  As of 2022, Egypt is still yet to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty.

How many licences for the sale of arms to Egypt did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2022?

Between 2012 and 2022, there has been a total of 346 unlimited and limited licences for military arms exports which were issued by the UK government to Egypt. The number of weapons licences granted was constantly high over the past decade and only started decreasing slightly since 2019 and more strongly since 2021.

In 2015, there were 56 approved single-use military arms export licences to Egypt from the UK, including mostly assault rifles, small arms ammunition, military helmets, and body armour. The decrease in approval of weapon licences is due to the European Union Parliament’s resolution that called for the suspension of security cooperation and arms deals between Egypt and any EU member state because of the “high level of repression” and the “deeply concerning human rights situation” in Egypt. The institute’s Trends in International Arms Transfers report reveals that Egypt’s imports of major arms increased in volume by 136% from the periods 2011-2015 to 2016-2020. From 2018 to 2021 the graph shows a continuous increase, amounting to at 313 approved arms exports licences in 2021. 

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

As seen, between 2012 and 2022, the total value of licences exports from the UK to Egypt was £332m.

In 2012, £18m worth of UK arms exports were approved for Egypt, the year that at least 840 people were killed and over 6,000 injured during the Egyptian Revolution as then-President Hosni Mubarak clung to power. rise in approved licences can be highlighted by General Sisi’s coup in 2014 against the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government.

The first peak during the defined period occurred in 2015 when the UK approved £108.4m worth of military arms exports to Egypt. The EU parliament in 2016 called for the suspension of security cooperation with Cairo, and condemned arms deals between Egypt and France, Germany, and the UK. From 2015 to 2020, less than £20m worth of exported licenses were granted by the UK to Egypt, until 2021 witnessed a considerable increase with a valuation of £97m. Although, numbers decreased the following year, they still amounted to a gargantuan £34m.

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Egypt?

Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use),  and excludes dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software and technology that can be used for civil purposes, humanitarian aid, but also for military goals).

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Bangladesh between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
Military helmets59
Body armour57
Small arms ammunition55
Components for body armour50
Assault rifles49
Weapon sights44
Components for assault rifles43
Sniper rifles25
Top three export licenses approved by ratingValue of export licenses in GBP
ML5 ‒ Target acquisition, weapon control and countermeasure systems£166m
ML10 ‒ Aircraft, helicopters, drones£60m
ML6 ‒ Armoured vehicles, tanks£26m
Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

The most frequent type of licence provided by Britain to Egypt are military helmets and body armour, whilst the most profitable export are target acquisition, weapon control and countermeasure systems accounting for £166m. Most of Sisi’s weapons deals serve his political agenda, as upgrading and modernising the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) is a crucial element to maintain military support to the regime. External support has proved crucial for the survival of Sisi’s regime which relies on arms deals to compensate for the lack of internal legitimacy of his rule. Overall, internal repression has been widely criticised in Egypt and this type of equipment will only give more power to the Egyptian state to monitor and track its citizens.

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

British arms to Egypt are going to a regime involved in numerous human rights abuses. Since the eruption of the mass demonstrations in January 2011, Egypt has undergone several regime changes and it has been the subject of serious political turmoil. However, the human rights abuses perpetrated by the state apparatus remain a worrying constant. Egyptian security forces, mainly the army, as well as ISIS-affiliated militants, committed serious and widespread abuses in North Sinai, some of which amount to war crimes since the conflict escalated in late 2013. The police and security forces frequently employ brute force and violent weapons in dealing with civilians and opposition members and often enjoy impunity for their actions. Both government policy and law allow for the arbitrary detention of persons, for an indefinite period. The use of torture is widespread. Trials and sentences based on “confessions” extracted through torture and the use of military trials for civilians are common features of the Egyptian judicial system. The press faces impediments to free reporting, with journalists being detained and imprisoned. Recently, the government has begun to put in place measures that restrict the functioning of human rights NGOs and target people who affiliate with the LGBT community. In short, the human rights situation in Egypt is precarious with violations attributable to government policy – something that should concern deeply when considering the export of British arms to that country. Prosecutions concerning police brutality have not progressed far.

In 2021, CAAT showed UK government information demonstrating that since 2013 the UK has sold Egypt all kinds of arms that could have been used in the suppression of its citizens, including machine guns and parts for military combat vehicles and military helicopters. The UK government arms sales department, Defence & Security Exports, has identified Egypt as a “key market,” despite its alarming human rights record. According to CAAT, “UK Prime Ministers and Trade ministers have made and hosted many meetings with the Egyptian government since 2013.”

Moreover, Egypt was the third largest arms importer in the world, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2017 to 2021. The country’s arms imports accounted for 5.7% of the global total and were 73% higher than in 2012 to 2016, with at least one third of Egypt’s population living below the poverty line. Sisi’s unprecedented military spending raises questions about its purposes, priorities, and objectives.

 What has the British government said about these concerns?

In 2017, Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay said that the UK government often raised human rights concerns with the Egyptian government, and in 2015 the UK government admitted that Egypt’s “human rights situation [has] remained poor and continued to deteriorate,” adding that, reports of torture, police brutality, and forced disappearance increased. The FCO strategy to address and improve the human rights issues consisted among others to raise the issues at a senior level, making public statements on issues of concern as well as bringing the issues up in multilateral forums.

Nonetheless, it is evident that the UK government has maintained a close diplomatic relationship with Egypt, with FCO officials regularly travelling to Cairo as well as having frequent visits from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Downing Street. Lawyers for the Egyptian opposition ‘Freedom and Justice party’ contacted Scotland Yard alleging that the Head of the Army was implicated in the use of torture in Egypt and calling for his arrest, but the Foreign Office had given him temporary diplomatic immunity from investigation during his visit. According to CAAT, “the UK government has often invited Egypt to send staff to visit the DSEI arms fair to shop for new equipment. They have accepted and attended in both 2017 and 2019. In 2015, they weren’t officially invited by the UK government, but arms fair organisers hosted a private VIP group from Egypt which will have likely including the head of the Egyptian Army.”

On 28 March 2022, then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, spoke to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the geopolitical challenges arising from the situation in Ukraine and its invasion, including rising food prices and instability in the energy market. There was no comments regarding the human rights situation in Egypt, but rather, Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the growing cooperation between the United Kingdom and Egypt on trade, defence, security, and congratulated President Sisi on the impressive development of the Grand Egyptian Museum.

Egypt is a lucrative market for the British arms industry, and the country is a loyal ally in the region, so it is favourable to keep it within the US-UK geopolitical orbit. The official response from the UK government is that Egypt is fighting an important battle against terrorism and the spread of ISIS in the Sahel.

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Egyptian government has committed since 2012?

Particularly since the military coup in 2013, there have been a series of reports about human rights abuses in the country. Some of the most commonly used abuses include: Arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, including electric shocks and sexual assault, restriction of freedom of expression- by state forces arresting and imprisoning journalists, bloggers and social media users, violent crackdowns on protests- resulting in deaths and injuries, persecution of religious minorities-including attacks on churches and individuals of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, restriction on women’s tights-such as restrictions on their freedom of movement and dress, and restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights.

More detailed events include, in 2013, 65 protesters were reported killed by security forces during a pro-Morsi demonstration in July. Police tortured suspects during both the Morsi and interim governments, reported Human rights organizations.

A year later, it is estimated that 450 to 1.000 people were arrested by security forces during protests on the third anniversary of the 2011 revolution. The detained were allegedly tortured which included beatings and electric shocks. At least 14 students died in protest-related violence at or near university campuses during the 2013-14 academic year. In most cases concerning official abuse, either the government did not comprehensively investigate human rights abuse or investigations resulted in acquittals.

In March 2014, in a single hearing, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced 529 supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi to be executed for their alleged role in violence following his ousting.

The following year, during excessive preventative custody and pretrial detentions, the military courts tried hundreds of defendants without evidence for their individual cases. Additionally, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office published a figure of 676 cases of torture and 137 deaths in detention, meanwhile the El Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence reported 37 deaths due to torture during that year.

The restrictions on civil liberties by the government consisted of freedoms of expression and the press  as 23 journalists were jailed for their work according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The government also limited the ability of NGOs to register, work and obtain funding, and several human rights defenders were banned from travelling. The crackdown on NGOs escalated in 2017 as investigative judges set up a criminal investigation into the activities and funding of NGOs, questioning staff and consequently banning 12 defenders from travelling and freezing the assets of seven defenders and six groups. The authorities ordered the closure of one human rights organization. Simultaneously, fundamental human rights violations were persistently being reported. Torture and ill-treatment continued to be a widespread practice among security forces. Human Rights Watch disclosed details about the procedures of torture sessions. According to detainees, security officers used handheld electric stun guns to shock the suspects, who normally are blindfolded, stripped, and handcuffed. Policemen increased the duration of electric shocks if detainees did not provide satisfactory answers to their initial questions. Sometimes, interrogators would hang the suspect in unnatural and stressful positions, such as the so-called ‘chicken position’, for minutes or hours.

Furthermore, enforced disappearances against hundreds of people were reported, and there were claims of dozens of people having been extrajudicially executed with impunity. The arbitrary arrests and detentions against government critics, peaceful protesters, journalists, and human rights defenders was continuously reported, with dozens sentenced to death.

Presidential elections were held in 2018. Challengers to “incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi withdrew ahead of the election, citing personal decisions, political pressure, legal troubles, and unfair competition; in some cases, they were arrested for alleged violations of candidacy rules.”

Constitutional amendments passed  by the government in 2019 further consolidated authoritarian rule, undermined the judiciary’s dwindling independence, and expanded the military’s power to intervene in political life. The president was given the power to appoint the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, the head and members of the Commissioners’ Authority, and Egypt’s public prosecutor, among other positions. In August, President al-Sisi approved a new law that maintained most of the drastic restrictions imposed on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

While coronavirus made the appalling conditions in Egypt’s prisons raise  urgent concern in 2020, the authorities had used the pandemic to justify further arrests and repression, including automatic renewal of pretrial detention. More than 60,000 political prisoners were held in Egyptian prisons in terrible and decaying conditions without any basic rights, sufficient food, or access to health care. This took place in overcrowded prison cells which became infestation hubs for the COVID-19.

In February of 2021, nearly 200 frontline European politicians signed a letter calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on Egypt to address the country’s “human rights crisis”. The letter urged the UNHRC to take “resolute action” ahead of the council’s upcoming session in March. In October, the president lifted the nationwide state of emergency in place since April 2017 that gave security forces unchecked powers. Security forces used torture and enforced disappearances systematically against dissidents from all backgrounds. Amnesty International determined that “the military, which announced fatalities in its ranks and the killing of 122 militants in clashes, released a video in August depicting the unlawful killing of two unarmed men by the military.”

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Egypt.  Human rights abuses continue.