UK hardens stance towards Egypt's Sisi regime

Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London who was unexpectedly appointed as Britain's Foreign Secretary two weeks ago, is famous for his gaffes. No newspaper story about Boris is complete, it seems, without some amusing reference to his blunders and mishaps. But such are the expectations of him, as the leading entertainer in British politics, that journalists may now be spotting gaffes where none exist.

On July 19 Boris gave his first press conference as Foreign Secretary and twice mentioned "a burgeoning crisis in Egypt" as one of his priorities. Since the press conference coincided with mass arrests in Turkey following the failed coup a few days earlier, most journalists in the room assumed he had meant to say "Turkey" rather than "Egypt". Hahahahaha, bumbling Boris can't tell the difference between Egypt and Turkey, etc, etc.

Although Foreign Office officials insisted that when he said "Egypt" he really did mean Egypt, it didn't stop the Daily Mail coming out with this:

Despite the Mail's shrieks of "Egypt crisis? What Egypt crisis?", the situation there is obviously deteriorating. There are also good reasons to suppose this was one of the issues that had landed on Boris's desk during his first days in the new job. The Foreign Office was about to release a highly critical report on human rights in Egypt – it was actually published two days after the press conference – and a British parliamentary delegation was due to set off for Cairo shortly after that (it arrived on Monday and will be staying until Saturday).

Britain's position towards the Sisi regime has been hardening recently. In June, Egypt was one of nine countries singled out for criticism by the British delegation at the UN Human Rights Council:

"We are concerned by the deteriorating situation in Egypt, particularly restrictions on civil society, detentions of political activists and reports of torture and enforced disappearance. We call on Egypt to release political detainees, end the use of pre-trial detention beyond its legal limits, and allow NGOs to operate freely."

On July 21 the Foreign Office issued a "Human Rights Priority Country update" which is probably the toughest statement on Sisi's Egypt yet to emerge from the Foreign Office. It contrasts sharply with a Foreign Office report in March last year which, while critical of the human rights situation, was broadly supportive of the regime's anti-terrorism efforts and began by saying that Egypt had "completed two of the three steps in its road map for political transition".

In a note about last month's Human Rights Council session, the July 21 document also says Britain raised its complaints about Egypt under Agenda Item 4 rather than Agenda Item 2 (as previously). The significance of this might not be immediately apparent but the document explains that it was "a step-change in our approach, commensurate with our growing concern".