NATO Secretary General warns Egypt unrest may increase illegal immigration to Europe

The NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, warned today that the unrest in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia could cause economic hardship and increase illegal immigration to Europe. Speaking to journalists at his monthly press conference in Brussels, Rasmussen stressed the resulting instability also may have a negative impact on the Middle East peace process. But he noted that the turmoil does not pose a direct threat to NATO's member states:  

I do not consider the situation in Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere as a direct threat to NATO allies or the Alliance, but obviously the evolving situation in the Middle East and North Africa may have an impact on the Middle East peace process. And instability in the region may also in a longer-term perspective have a negative impact on the economy, which might lead to illegal immigration in Europe”. 

He also said that he expected this “to be one of the issues to discuss with our Gulf partners” at a NATO Council meeting scheduled for Qatar next week. But Rasmussen said that NATO has “no plans” to change the Alliance’s concept of partnerships as a result of the “evolving situation” in Egypt and North Africa. He added that NATO was already committed to enhancing and developing its partnership arrangements based on decisions taken at the Lisbon Summit in November – and NATO Foreign Ministers will discuss this new partnership policy at their meeting in Berlin in April. He added, “So, yes, you will see a change of NATO’s partnership policy, but it is not initiated by the situation in Egypt or North Africa”. 

Today’s comments expand on those he gave during the Munich Security Conference last week. When speaking to journalists on the margins of the conference on 4 February, Rasmussen had said that he was “shocked by the violence in Egypt” and he urged “all parties to stop violence and ensure a peaceful transition to democracy”. He added: “We have a very valuable partnership with Egypt and other countries in North Africa called the Mediterranean Dialogue and of course we have a dialogue with these countries but we do not interfere in domestic politics".  

The Alliance discusses security issues and purports to support reforms in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia through its Mediterranean Dialogue program, established in 1994. NATO clearly sees Egypt as a key stabilizing factor in the Middle East and an ally in the fight against terrorism. Washington in particular has poured billions of dollars into the US-equipped Egyptian Army and the US-trained Egyptian officer corps. And the Mubarak regime was a key partner in the ‘War on Terror’ with Egypt’s jails being used to torture terror suspects. Given this track record of interference by a leading NATO member state, it is hardly surprising to find the Secretary General treading a fine line between advocating reform and calling for stability. 

And like most other Western leaders, he has tended to err towards the latter.  In his speech at the 47th Munich Security Conference Rasmussen voiced concern over the popular upheaval in several west-backed Arab states, warning that the evolving situation could eventually threaten ‘world order’. "As I speak, fast-moving events are unfolding in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The outcome of this turmoil remains unclear, its long-term consequences unpredictable. But one thing we know: old certainties no longer hold, tectonic plates are shifting. At stake today is not just the world economy, but the world order" the NATO chief said.

In contrast, on the same day UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was calling for an immediate end to "the intimidation and restrictions on the international media and human rights groups" in Egypt's current turmoil, dubbing it "outrageous”. 

NATO Watch director, Ian Davis said, “The NATO Secretary General should have followed the lead of his counterpart at the UN and made an unequivocal statement of support for a peaceful end to the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak. Instead, Rasmussen used the situation to criticise cuts in European defence spending - quite surreal”. He added, “NATO worries about security and orderly transitions sound remarkably like Mr. Mubarak’s age-old excuses for postponing change”.