These are normally described by the newspapers as “political jollies” which actually could not be further from the truth. So I thought I would give a brief description of my trip to Egypt last weekend along with six colleagues.
Since I joined the House of Lords three years ago many groups including development agencies, human rights campaigning groups and the Inter Parliamentary Union have asked me to go on trips abroad. It is a real privilege to be asked but I say no to almost all of them and really for practical reasons; I find them exhausting. We arrived in Egypt last Saturday morning and after 3 hours sleep got up at 6.30am ready for a day of meetings with the President, Foreign Secretary and British Ambassador amongst others. I scraped two hours sleep in the afternoon before attending a dinner with local business people where I gave a speech. The Sunday was similar and I left dinner early to get some sleep before an early airport departure on the Monday. Then it was straight back into the Lords at 2pm on the Monday afternoon. Government Ministers in the foreign office have, I believe, a particular stamina for this routine which I am not sure I have.
Also when asked to go on a trip, I only go on those linked to areas on which I am working, namely international religious freedom, human rights, Ghana or Central African Republic. A trip to Bangladesh on maternal health would be really interesting but is not my area of expertise and I would be wasting the time and money of the group inviting me. The value of such trips is that, even in an age of facebook and twitter, there is nothing to replace being on the ground and speaking to people. This informs my contributions to debates in the Lords and encourages, often oppressed people, that you will take time from your schedule to visit them. I look forward this year to the contributions from the Archbishop of Canterbury who has promised to visit all Anglican Primates in their countries and I think might outdo the Foreign Secretary if they were comparing air miles.
But even though freedom of religion and human rights make Egypt seem an obvious choice (four different Egyptian groups support the All Party Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief) the decision to go was a finely balanced one. Since the revolution in June 2013 the Interim Government has been clamping down on protests including firing on peaceful protestors on 25th January and putting some journalists in prison. Would the visit be misused by the government for their purposes and will I be viewed as condoning that behaviour? Or do I go and forcefully raise my concerns? I decided on the latter. I am glad I did as I got more insight into the security situation Egypt faces especially in Sinai where various terrorist groups are operating and into their difficult border with Libya.
The now Presidential Candidate El-Sisi thought that my suggestion of removing religion from the identity card and having a cabinet full of people of different ages, religions and ethnicities was a step too far. But I believe we have begun a relationship with the decision makers that we met there and it is always best to challenge from a position of relationship. I will I am sure return to Egypt soon and hopefully I will see freedom to protest, freedom of expression and freedom of religion thriving. But for now it is Thursday and I need coffee preferably intravenously fed.