Egypt — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:56 pm on 18 October 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 2:56, 18 October 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the increasing problems for the Coptic community in Egypt.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary issued a statement on 10 October expressing his profound concern over the violence in Cairo on 9 October. He urged all Egyptians to,

"refrain from violence and support the Egyptian Prime Minister's call for calm", and "all sides" to,

"engage in dialogue. The freedom of religious belief ... needs to be protected ... The ability to worship in peace is a vital component of any ... democratic society".

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative

I thank my noble friend for his thoughtful and comprehensive reply. I hope he will agree that Egypt is to be commended on its successful application of the rule of law to former President Mubarak, who is currently being prosecuted for ordering the killing of protesters in the January revolution. While Her Majesty's Government would not wish to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs, is the Minister satisfied that a military investigation into military actions on 9 October will also result in the successful application of the rule of law to those who ordered the killing of peaceful Coptic protesters?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

There is no room for satisfaction either in our own minds or, as I understand it, in the minds of the Egyptian Government. A government commission has been appointed to examine the situation, but on 12 October my right honourable friend had a detailed conversation with Mr Amr, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, during which he urged him most strongly to establish the facts and, in the words of the Egyptians, to see what went wrong. There are several different versions of what occurred, but the clear result is that many people died. This kind of violence is completely unacceptable. As my noble friend will know, we have a very close dialogue with Egypt at the moment. We are involved in a helpful and supportive way-not interfering but encouraging and supporting the de-escalation of the situation, the restoration of law and order, the call for civilians not to be tried in military courts and the removal of the state of emergency. The dialogue and the pressure are there, and I believe that the Egyptian Government realise that this kind of appalling event will greatly damage their future and must on all accounts be prevented and avoided.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, is the Minister aware of reports that judges in some Egyptian courts are refusing to accept evidence from Copts? Does he know if there is any truth in such reports? If he is not aware of them, would he be kind enough to make inquiries and write to me?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

Assessing the truth of these reports is difficult, but one proposition that we have offered in support of the situation in Egypt is that civilians should not be tried in military courts. That is not quite the point that the noble Baroness made, but it is related. As for the question about their judgments, I will make further inquiries and see if I can illuminate my answer.

Photo of The Archbishop of Canterbury The Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop

Would the Minister agree that part of the underlying problem in the situation that we have seen unfolding recently is a prolonged failure on the part of the security forces to guarantee the safety of Christian personnel and property, not only in the Aswan province in recent months but over a longer period? It seems clear to many of us that this is bringing Muslims and Christians in Egypt together in great distress and anxiety about the dismantling of a long history of fruitful co-operation and coexistence in the country. As we have been reminded, a commission of inquiry has been promised by the Egyptian Administration. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will continue to press contacts within that Government, not only on the objectivity and proper distance of that inquiry from the military establishment, but also for consideration in such an inquiry of the record of the security forces over this period.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

We are all grateful to the most reverend Primate for his insights. He is absolutely right about the long history of these pressures and difficulties, as well as the recent evidence of a rising tone of extremism in the clashes that have occurred. I can only reassure him that the dialogue is continuous and the pressure is on in my right honourable friend's discussions with the Egyptian authorities. The understanding is established that this must be a clear and full inquiry into what really happened; that the control and policy of the security forces must be even-handed; and that there must be work towards a unified law. That means equal rights for all faiths and religions in the matters of building mosques and churches, and in the security forces protecting them from violence. The most reverend Primate is absolutely right: these are the aims that we will continue to pursue with great vigour.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister return to the question that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, put to him earlier about these events at Maspero, where this terrible massacre occurred? Specifically, would he answer her point about the nature of the inquiry to be conducted? Would he agree that, contrary to some of the reports that suggested that this was a clash between equals, these civilians were gunned down, were unarmed, and were run over by vehicles all of which were owned by the Egyptian army? How can it be right that the army should now carry out the inquiry?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

This is a perfectly serious and valid query and I recognise the interest of the noble Lord. We will pursue the matter of the nature of the inquiry. There is a swirl of different versions of what occurred. The propositions of some were that the army was not officially authorised to act, that it was supplied with blank bullets and that the shooting took place when other parties intervened. Others say exactly as the noble Lord has said. One has to get to the bottom of what occurred, and we will press very hard for the Egyptian authorities to do that. Certainly, the present situation has too many unreliable versions to be regarded as satisfactory. More truth must come out.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat

My Lords, would my noble friend accept that there is no advantage to be gained by the military and the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, getting together against Egypt's Christian communities? Would he reflect on news reports that the military is now seeking to delay the presidential election until after a constituent assembly has been formed, perhaps pushing that back as far as late 2013? The best method of preserving Egypt's diversity under the rule of law is for an early transition to democratic rule.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr Amr, told my right honourable friend that the lower house elections would go ahead in November and the presidential elections would be next year, possibly next summer. I agree totally with my noble friend that it is in nobody's interests for these elections to be further delayed. We have made it absolutely clear to the Egyptian Ministers and authorities that the sooner we get forward with the sequence of the return to full democracy the better, and early presidential elections are very much part of that.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, we have a virtually insoluble dilemma about Britain in any sense directly addressing the question of rights on behalf of the Coptic Christians. The revolution is fairly recent, but let us look ahead to the reconstruction of Egypt, whether it is in relation to its infrastructure, investment, social policy, tourism or anything else. Is it not reasonable to visualise, as we have done with a number of countries, that the dialogue with Egypt-which would have to be carried out under the European Union because it cannot be accused of imperialism in the same sense as Britain can, but that is arguable-would have to include a wide range of social and religious freedoms and human rights questions? Would it be more useful for the British Government to help stimulate discussion fairly soon about the forum for dialogue so that the whole of Egyptian public opinion can be brought on board as part of that dialogue?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

I think I see what the noble Lord is getting at. Certainly our support and help-I repeat, not interference with the affairs of the Egyptian nation-is geared to that kind of development. We are backing non-governmental organisations that are promoting think tanks and discussion groups to try to widen the political diversity, to support the role of women in the political process and to develop a number of other activities to support the evolution of sensible, balanced party politics. This is what we are seeking to do in addition to substantial aid through the Arab Partnership in various other social areas. The general thrust is, I think, in line with what the noble Lord was saying.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, the persecution of Coptic Christians did not begin with the revolution. Can the noble Lord say that he will press for inquiries into unlawful killings that took place before the revolution-quite possibly at the same hands as those that took place after-to be pursued?

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy)

The noble Lord is quite right. Echoing what was said a moment ago, I say that this goes back into history and is, in a sense, not a new problem, although it assumed a horrific newness or novelty in the rise of extremist attacks and the involvement in an extreme way of the Salafists and other movements, in this case against the Christian and Coptic communities. We believe strongly that freedom of belief and worship by all faiths should be protected in every possible way. The need for inquiry into both past misdemeanours and past violence in order to understand the roots of the present violence is indeed extremely important.