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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Why Britain needs to strengthen its ties with Egypt

The Laura Plummer case has shed new light on the complex relations between London and Cairo, writes Con Coughlin

Abdel-Fattah El Sisi. AP
Abdel-Fattah El Sisi. AP

The decision by an Egyptian court to jail a British woman for three years for drug offences has caused yet further diplomatic friction with Britain at a time when both countries can least afford it.

Laura Plummer, a 33-year-old shop assistant from Hull, has been given a three-year jail sentence following her arrest at the Red Sea resort of Hurghada after she was found to be carrying 290 tramadol tablets in her suitcase. The drug, a painkiller generally used for the treatment of back pain, is legal in the UK, but a prohibited substance in Egypt. Ms Plummer’s family said she was carrying the tablets for her Egyptian boyfriend, who suffers from severe back pain, and was unaware she was breaking the law.

The case has become mired in further controversy after Ms Plummer appeared at an Egyptian court earlier this week where she reportedly entered an incorrect plea and admitted to importing the drugs by mistake. But Ms Plummer’s family say the Egyptian translator did not properly understand her responses to the court.

Ms Plummer is languishing in the Qena prison north of Luxor, which is said to house some of the most dangerous criminals in Egypt, including members of ISIL and the Muslim Brotherhood. Her family are understandably concerned about her ability to survive such an ordeal.

Irrespective of the merits of the case, the jailing of a British woman in a squalid prison filled with Islamist extremists and rapists does no favours for Egypt’s image with the British public, who see the case as yet another example of an innocent British traveller receiving rough justice at the hands of a Middle East country.

Such publicity is the last thing the Egyptian government needs at a time when it is desperately trying to rebuild the country’s vital tourism industry, which has been devastated by the twin evils of the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived time in government, and a wave of terrorist attacks.

Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of rebuilding relations between London and Cairo has been the British government’s refusal to lift the ban on direct flights to the Egyptian holiday resort of Sharm El Sheikh. The ban was imposed in November 2015 after a Russian holiday jet was blown up shortly after leaving the resort, killing all 224 people on board. The attack was blamed on an ISIL terror cell, and even though the Egyptian authorities have made valiant strides to improve security at the resort’s airport, British prime minister Theresa May still refuses to lift the main, thereby costing the resort hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenues.

The British government’s refusal to lift the ban, as well as its continuing criticism of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, have led to a cooling in relations between London and Cairo. It might also help to explain the recent warming in relations between Egypt and Russia following the recent visit to Cairo by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

But Western policymakers are making a grave miscalculation if they believe they can ignore the concerns of such an important and pivotal country as Egypt.

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For a start, following its bruising encounter with the worst excesses of political Islam that the country experience during deposed president Mohammed Morsi’s brief tenure in office, Mr El Sisi’s government is now at the forefront of regional efforts to combat Islamist-inspired terrorism.

Apart from cracking down on the anti-government activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Egyptian authorities are also involved in a bitter battle against Islamist extremists in other parts of the region, such as neighbouring Libya, where a number of Qatar-funded militias are seeking to seize control of large swathes of the country.

I have long regarded Egypt as holding the key to the political stability of North Africa, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Libya where the Egyptian security forces are deeply involved in stemming the tide of Islamist insurgents who seized control of large areas of the country following the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

In particular the Egyptians are providing military support to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the anti-Islamist Libyan commander who now controls much of eastern Libya. The Egyptians see him as the best bet for pushing back the Islamist militant groups who dominate many of the towns and cities in the west of the country, many of which have benefitted from Qatari largesse.

The other issue where Egypt’s cooperation with the West could prove vital is in relation to the deepening stand-off between Washington and Tehran. The current Egyptian government is no friend of the ayatollahs, especially as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were linked to a number of the Egyptian Salafist groups that were responsible for a number of atrocities carried out during the Morsi era.

Now that Mr Trump has made it clear he wants to end Iran’s unwelcome meddling in the affairs of the Arab world, Egypt could prove an important ally in efforts to curb the Iranians’ worst excesses. But for that happen, countries like Britain need to do more to strengthen relations with Cairo, and not allow disputes over disputed court cases, such as the one involving the unfortunate Miss Plummer, to get in the way of this vital strategic partnership.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s Defence and Security Editor.

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