Between December 6th and December 8th, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi undertook an official visit in the French capital, aimed at reviving the bilateral relations and at restoring stability in the North African region, according to the post-visit assessment of President Al-Sisi.
However, the visit took place amid several accusations related to human rights violations and France’s criticized position towards Egypt, mostly because it tries to boost the economic and commercial ties through the arms deals. Mostly, France was accused of putting profit before human rights violations, even before the visit of the Egyptian president, by different activists.
“Disagreements over human rights issues will not prevent France from reaching economic and defense deals with Egypt”, President Emmanuel Macron stated. Macron’s comments were made after he received his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi in Paris.
During their meeting, both heads of state also expressed opposing views about the role of religious values in society. Macron called for greater inclusiveness of civil society in the political decision-making process in Egypt, saying it is a better way to fight extremism than “political repression”. The pair also discussed terrorism, the conflict in Libya, and other regional issues.
Also, the French president said he would not condition the future sale of French arms to Egypt on human rights because he did not want to weaken Cairo’s ability to counter-terrorism in the region. Macron however said he spoke “frankly” to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi about human rights during his state visit to France.
Egypt and France have enjoyed an increasingly close relationship under the rule of former army general el-Sisi, with common interests in the Middle East and a shared suspicion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“I will not condition matters of defense and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights],” said Macron. “It is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism,” he added.
Egypt has concluded several arms deals with France since 2015, including the purchase of two French-made Mistral-class helicopter carriers and two dozen Rafale advanced fighter jets.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly urged the Elysee Palace to press Sisi on his record of “human rights violations” which Macron in the past has waved away as merely tough policies. In an open letter signed by 17 organizations, HRW urged Macron to press the Sisi government to “release arbitrarily detained activists.” The strongly-worded letter went on to say that “French diplomacy has, at the highest levels, long indulged President Al-Sisi’s brutal repression of any form of dissent.” The signatories added that Sisi’s unjust and arbitrary imprisoning is “rewarded with arms deals and praise” undermining France’s “commitment to human rights in Egypt.”
The HRW letter said that if France doesn’t bring up the plight of jailed human rights defenders, it “would sabotage France’s own efforts to promote human rights within its partnership with Egypt and undermine France’s credibility in many countries in the region”.
Amnesty International’s Egypt and Libya researcher Hussein Baoumi accused Macron of failing to hold Al-Sisi to account. “Macron’s message sends a very dangerous message to Egypt because it’s basically reiterating that actual cooperation between the two countries won’t be impacted by the human rights situation in Egypt,” Baoumi told Al Jazeera from the Tunisian capital, Tunis. “It’s also a very dangerous message because from the Egyptian government’s point of view, ‘counterterrorism’ means arresting peaceful human rights defenders, it means arresting peaceful protesters, it means subjecting them to very dire conditions, it means enforcing disappearances and it means torture in order to extract confessions.”
With regards to the bilateral economic ties, in 2019 alone, France sold more than $1 billion worth of arms to Egypt. The sales have been described as “profound contradictions of French diplomacy.”
To make the criticism worse, the French president Emmanuel Macron gave his Egyptian counterpart France’s highest award on his state visit to Paris, a presidential official said, adding to the controversy over the official visit. Macron decorated Al-Sisi with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour during the visit, the French presidential official insisting that the gesture was an unavoidable part of protocol on a state visit.
Other heads of state were given the Legion of Honour, including the kings of Spain, the Netherlands, and Morocco, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who received the Legion of Honour in 2006.
Moreover, ironically, France, a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, launched an initiative at the UN’s headquarters in 2019 to “implement and strengthen international humanitarian law, particularly as regards the protection of humanitarian workers and healthcare personnel”.
At the basis of these accusations, Egypt’s actions are quite conclusive. As such, in early November, Egyptian security forces arrested three directors from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the last remaining independent human rights organizations in the country. The arrests occurred after the group’s leaders met the ambassadors of several European countries to discuss Egypt’s human rights record.
Also, the dissidents’ arrests were condemned internationally and the human rights defenders were released from jail earlier this month after foreign pressure. One of the group’s members is still in jail after he was arrested in February of this year. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time condemned the arrests and warned that such actions were “having a profound chilling effect on an already weakened Egyptian civil society”.
Moreover, in October of this year, the Sisi government executed 15 political prisoners, some of which had organized protests against the military coup in 2013.
On December 12th, during his inspection visit to the Military Academy, Al-Sisi said that Egypt is keen on enhancing bilateral cooperation with France, especially in the military, security, and cultural fields. He added that the Egyptian policy is based on cooperation with world countries and establishing balanced and moderate relations in order to achieve development and reconstruction away from polarisation.