London – Egyptian opposition groups and human rights campaigners have called for the investigation and arrest of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and members of his entourage during his visit to London amid condemnation of the “red carpet” welcome extended by the British government to a leader accused of plunging his country into the worst human rights crisis in its history.
Hundreds of protesters, including many Egyptian exiles, gathered on Wednesday evening outside 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, where Sisi was due to meet David Cameron on Thursday morning, to express their opposition to the visit, carrying banners reading “Stop butcher el-Sisi” and “Killer Sisi not welcome in the United Kingdom”.
Many wore yellow T-shirts or carried flags bearing the four-fingered R4BIA symbol commemorating the hundreds of people shot dead by security forces in August 2013, while protesting in Cairo’s Rabaa Square in an episode described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”.
“Morsi is democracy, Sisi is hypocrisy,” they chanted, referring to Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president removed from office by Sisi in a military coup in July 2013.
“We stand here today to say shame on you Cameron. Not in the name of the British people, not in the name of the Egyptian people, will we accept the bloodstained hands of a dictator who has come to Britain to gain legitimacy,” Maha Azzam, the head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, a coalition of opposition groups, told the crowd.
“If General Sisi today thinks he has diplomatic immunity, let me remind him that he will not be able to run away from justice. Justice awaits him. Egyptians today deserve to have their rights and freedoms respected.”
Sisi has been condemned by international human rights watchdogs since launching a crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, which his government considers a terrorist organisation, and other opposition groups, with thousands of protesters killed and imprisoned and hundreds sentenced to death under his rule.
“Egypt is going through its worst human rights crisis for decades,” David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
“Far from moving towards democracy, what we have seen is a ferocious crackdown on dissent and opposition, the denial of fundamental rights and freedoms, and the rebuilding of the very authoritarian state that people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere were protesting against in 2011.”
Cameron was the first Western leader to visit Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that ended the rule of Egypt’s long-term military leader Hosni Mubarak and said at the time that he had gone there to “support the aspirations of people in Egypt for a more genuine, open democracy”.
The UK has retained close ties to the Egyptian government since the restoration of military rule, with Michael Fallon, the British defence minister, declaring in August while in Egypt to attend the opening of the expanded Suez Canal that the countries stood “shoulder to shoulder” in a fight against “evil extremism”.
British-based companies such as BP and Vodafone also remain among the biggest players in the Egyptian economy, with $24bn invested in the country by British businesses in the past five years, while the UK arms industry is a major supplier of weapons and other military equipment.
“The UK is the biggest investor in Egypt and we want to let people know that we shouldn’t be investing in this way. This guy is killing people and imprisoning people, and we shouldn’t be giving him more money and weapons in order to oppress people,” Sameh Shafi, an activist with the UK-based #StopSisi campaign group, told Al Jazeera.
“We should be supporting human rights and democracy and the rule of law rather than doing the exact opposite by inviting someone like Sisi. What message does that send out to the world?”
But some seeking redress for those killed and imprisoned under Sisi hope that the British legal system, which allows police to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity under the principle of universal jurisdiction, could be used to bring perpetrators to justice.
Rodney Dixon, a barrister representing Morsi, who is currently in prison and sentenced to death, and his Freedom and Justice Party, told a press conference ahead of Sisi’s arrival that British police had been investigating human rights offences in Egypt for some time and were being urged to make arrests.
“We have engaged the UK police to investigate the serious crimes committed in Egypt and to prosecute those persons who travel here, because the law permits for their prosecution in UK courts,” said Dixon.
While Sisi and other senior figures enjoy diplomatic immunity, Dixon said this did not prevent police from investigating them and should not be an obstacle to prosecution in cases of “the most serious and egregious human rights violations”.
“I think that somebody like [Syrian] President Bashar al-Assad at the moment would not be welcome in the UK and would not be given immunity and our argument is that exactly the same principle should apply to Sisi and his entourage,” he said.
“The rule of law should apply equally and the distinction that is currently being made flouts the law and undermines the very basis on which human rights values are grounded.”
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told Al Jazeera that it would not discuss details of people who it may or may not be investigating, or planning to arrest.
The UK is by no means alone in welcoming Sisi, who has already been warmly received in other European capitals including Berlin, Paris, and Rome.
Nor have human rights concerns traditionally been a problem for world leaders visiting Downing Street, with Cameron having posed for photos on the doorstep earlier this week with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
For some, concerns about the current security threat posed by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has an affiliate group in Egypt’s Sinai region, instability in neighbouring Libya, and the opportunity to raise human rights issues directly, offer good reasons for pragmatic engagement with Sisi’s government.
“We shouldn’t have any delusions about the government’s priorities, which are security, both domestically and internationally, and the economy,” Carool Kersten, a Middle East commentator based at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
“Governments have to talk to people who happen to be in power in other places as well.”
A Downing Street spokesperson told Al Jazeera that Cameron had invited Sisi to “discuss how to work together on areas of mutual interest, including combating terrorism in Egypt and the region, and bringing stability to Libya. The stronger our working relationship, the more able we are to have necessary and frank discussions about issues on which we disagree”.
But Maha Azzam said that collaborating with a repressive regime risked fuelling terrorism and heightening the threat posed by armed groups to Western countries.
“He comes to this country with a message that he is the strongman in the region, yet through state violence he is breeding terrorism in our midst,” she said.
“What is happening in Egypt is the growth and appeal of radicalism because of his policies and those who support him. I fear for my country and I fear for the UK, because the existence of such leaders and their support by the international community threatens us all.”
Azzam’s comments were echoed on Wednesday by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, who said that Cameron’s invitation to Sisi “threatens, rather than protects, Britain’s national security”.
“Support for dictatorial regimes in the Middle East has been a key factor fuelling the spread of terrorism,” Corbyn said.
“Rather than rolling out the red carpet to President Sisi, the prime minister should suspend arms exports to Egypt until democratic and civil rights are restored.”
Standing amid the crowds on Tuesday evening, Yusuf Yusuf, an Egyptian shopkeeper living in Germany, wiped tears from his eyes as he described to Al Jazeera why he had flown to the UK to join the protest against Sisi’s visit.
He said he had also attended similar demonstrations in Berlin when Sisi had been hosted there by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in June.
“I have friends who were killed at Rabaa, and others who are now in prison and I feel I must do something for them. So I am following him wherever he goes to tell people that he is a butcher and a dictator.”