The exact dates of the presidential visit remained unconfirmed until the last minute, as usual. On October 23, though, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi entered French airspace with great pomp, escorted by several Rafale French fighter jets bearing the tricolor cockade and the Egyptian flag.
Sisi was on his first official visit to Paris since the election of French President Emmanuel Macron. Although the two men had met briefly before — at the 72nd General Assembly of United Nations in New York in September — bilateral relations have mostly been negotiated through their respective ministers, who are by now familiar with one another. Both Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister of foreign affairs, and Florence Parly, French minister of the Armed Forces, have already met with the Egyptian strongman and various Egyptian ministers on visits to Egypt over the last few months.
On Sisi’s arrival in Paris, the red carpet was rolled out by none other than Eric Trappier, the CEO of Dassault, manufacturer of the same Rafale aircraft that gave Sisi the guard of honor on his way to Paris, and welcomed the Egyptian president after his arrival on French soil. The enthusiastic businessman also congratulated Egyptian pilots for “their high quality performance,” and for training in “record time” to fly Rafale aircraft.
Sisi met with Parly the day he arrived at the Armed Forces’ headquarters, making reference to the “fruitful cooperation” between the two nations and adding that he eagerly anticipates the development of such collaboration in the future. In the meetings that followed, he reiterated this desire several times — to Hervé Guillou, CEO of the Naval group, to the head of the national railway company Guillaume Pepy, and to the French president himself.
Macron echoed Sisi’s desires for greater collaboration in a joint press conference: “Your presence here in Paris, by my side, is a testimony to the friendship you have for our country, and your busy program […] demonstrates the importance of your visit for France, and the very close cooperation that binds us.”
The two men have amassed an impressive portfolio of joint initiatives: Investment in Egypt’s new Suez Canal passageway, potential contracts for energy diversification, consultancy regarding improving Egypt’s railways, as well as academic and cultural ties.
The postcard is picture perfect. No one could dream of a better diplomatic relationship, right? But what is scribbled on the reverse of the enthusiastic smiles?
The verso of this glowing picture shows at least 60,000 political prisoners, proven cases of torture and sexual violence by Egyptian authorities and security forces, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. At least 434 websites have been blocked in Egypt, and the state is waging an ongoing crackdown on LGBTQ individuals, NGO workers, artists, atheists, researchers and journalists. Basically a blacked out square of human rights violations implemented by Sisi’s regime, with no French address to send complaints to.
“Emmanuel Macron should end now this era of indulgence towards Cairo,” Human Rights Watch stressed in a statement on the day of the presidential meeting. “Continuing to support Egypt’s repressive government would betray the country’s brave activists, who face grave risks trying to make their country better,” added HRW France’s director Bénédicte Jeannerod.
The relationship between the two countries in recent years has centered on military and security cooperation and counterterrorism, while France has turned a blind eye to Egypt’s worrying human rights record. Macron defended this position during Sisi’s visit, saying it is not his place to “lecture” Egypt on civil liberties. “I believe in the sovereignty of states and therefore. Just as I don’t accept being lectured on how to govern my country, I don’t lecture others […] My deeply held conviction is that it’s in President Sisi’s interests to address defense and human rights in a way that only he can be the judge of,” the French president said.
France rolls out the red carpet every single time Egypt asks for it, as for this most recent autumnal visit. The dust is, meanwhile, conveniently and repeatedly swept underneath.
After dropping historical ally President Hosni Mubarak and publically supporting Egypt’s January 25 revolution against authoritarian rule, France has again backed Egypt’s military establishment, in the form of Sisi and his generals.
The current French administration has a belief that it must support Egypt in regaining its traditional place as a regional power, says Agnes Levallois, consultant and vice-president of the Iremmo institute. This has been usurped by Saudi Arabia recently, she adds, so the feeling in France is, “Okay, Saudi Arabia plays its role, but it does not have the same cards as Egypt. It does not have the same experience. It does not have the same history to be able to take up this responsibility on its own. Therefore, we must help Egypt.”
This isn’t altruism. Western nations like France need a partner they can rely on in an unstable region, preferably with a strong leader at its head. Egypt shares 1,200 km of its borders with Libya, and is therefore on the front line to block waves of refugees and migrants attempting to enter Europe. Macron’s government, which has made Libya and the influx of refugees from its shores to Europe a major priority, is keen to support and utilize Egypt in this effort.
The motivation is domestic politics, says a French diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that Macron spares no expense on Libya because he doesn’t want to be blamed for immigration by his people. The French president forgets, however, that Egyptians are also increasingly trying to leave via their own shores, as illustrated last year when a boat trying to leave from the coast of Rashid sank with a large number of Egyptian passengers. Many refugees coming from the Horn of Africa have also opted to make their journeys to Europe via Alexandria and other Egyptian port cities.
Another hope that France is pinning on bilateral ties with Egypt is that militant cells and individuals will be contained and not spread to Europe. But here too, France is short sighted in imagining such individuals would have to travel through Egypt, or even that the Egyptian regime is managing to influence or reduce their activity. Until recently, this threat was largely confined to Egypt’s North Sinai Peninsula, but militant attacks and operations by security forces have since spread to other areas of Sinai and into the heart of the Nile Valley, the Delta, Upper Egypt and the Western Desert, in its proximity to the Libyan border.
That Egypt is not as strong or stable as authorities would like their French counterparts to believe isn’t particularly an issue in choosing regional allies, as Paris doesn’t see another option, says Agnès Levallois. Supporting Arab leaders willing to fight the immediate threat of militant groups is a shortsighted strategy that France has always had, without consideration for the underlying political issues, she adds.
Commonly described as discreet, cautious and a hard worker, French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (former minister of defense under François Hollande) is the architect of this play-it-by-ear strategy, and despite the change in French leadership, he has forged ahead his agenda of “assertive political realism,” as described by his collaborators.
“We are employing a short-term strategy,” admit several French diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Short-term and tinged with cynicism. What we refer to as “realpolitik” in the jargon.
The French minister of foreign affairs visited Egypt for the eighth time in June, officially to offer his condolences following an attack on a bus carrying Copts in Upper Egypt. Having just taken on his new role, Le Drian addressed a crowd of Egyptian journalists and media representatives on the 26th floor of the infamous Foreign Ministry building in Cairo. “It’s not a coincidence that I’m here again,” he said, ignoring hands waving in front of him with questions. Later on he visited with Coptic Pope Tawadros II and hailed the visit a “friendly gesture” towards his Egyptian counterpart. But purely friendly gestures never happen in diplomacy.
The visit was, of course, about more than was officially claimed. For Le Drian, the motivation for his trip was undoubtedly the situation in Libya, with which the minister has been concerned for many years. Sisi had ordered several missions in eastern Libya led by Rafale aircraft after the bus attack. “We cannot let terrorists and traffickers of any kind prosper on Egypt’s borders, at the gates of Europe,” Le Drian said during a press briefing. Libya plays an important role in the progress of peaceful solutions to which Egypt and France are very attached, he added.
Many stones have been placed carefully onto the tower of collaboration during these eight visits. Since 2014, Egypt has signed a US$1 billion deal with France for four warships and a $6 billion deal for 24 Rafale jet fighters. France has also sold weapons and military services to Egypt, including a $700 million military satellite, two Mistral helicopter carriers at $1 billion, originally built for sale to Russia, and rockets, firearms and ammunition amounting to almost $1 billion.
French policies regarding the export of arms are supposedly informed by rights-related regulations, including the December 2008 European Council Common Position that defines eight criteria for arms exports. This includes a requirement that EU countries “deny export licenses if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment exported might be used for internal repression,” or for “serious violations of international humanitarian law.” At least 13 EU countries are violating this requirement, including France, despite the EU Foreign Affairs Council urging members to suspend export licenses to Egypt in 2013 and 2014.
All military equipment exported by France has to be authorized by the prime minister. Such talks are classified and confidential, explains Aymeric Elluin, advocacy officer for weapons and international justice at Amnesty International.
“France doesn’t have any obligation to provide a public report on why certain exports were made or not,” he says, adding that Amnesty has one request: That the French government reveals what its reasons are for continuing to export military equipment and services to Egypt.
“It is time for French diplomats to stop playing VRP weapons manufacturers at the risk of seriously violating the provisions of the Treaty on the Arms Trade, ratified by Paris in 2013, and of international law more generally,” says Dimitris Christopoulos, director of FIDH. “If France is to maintain a ‘privileged’ relationship with Egypt, it can only continue in a climate of transparency, and any trade agreements must be conditional on a strict respect for human rights.”
Meanwhile, more stones are being added to the pile and Egypt’s shopping list is growing. Sisi raised the matter of acquiring 12 new Rafale aircraft, telecoms satellites and new Falcon aircraft during his latest trip to Paris.
“Amnesty International’s research has shown that armored vehicles exported by the US and France were used to facilitate extra judicial executions and the unlawful killing of protestors,” says Aymeric Elluin. The Egyptian military has also carried out a number of operations against armed groups in North Sinai with armored vehicles, tanks, Apache helicopters and F-16 aircrafts. HRW has published evidence showing that civilians are often victimized during such operations.
“President Macron should refuse to continue France’s disgraceful policies of indulgence toward Sisi’s repressive government,” Benedicte Jeannerod from HRW says.
The French obsession for “security everywhere” has had the effect of making Paris ignore its grievances with Egypt and its need for answers. The investigation into the crash of aircraft MS804 was stalled after a year and a half. Cairo tried to blackmail Paris into claiming the crash was the result of a terrorist attack, with no evidence to support such a claim. France even sent a number of diplomats to attend a tribute ceremony to the victims in Egypt, despite their families’ refusal to participate.
Also stalled with no resolution is an investigation into the death of French teacher Eric Lang, who died in an Egyptian police station in 2013, reportedly killed by his cellmates with encouragement from their jailers. Neither was there any official explanation for the death of Cécile Vannier in 2009 in a terrorist attack in Cairo, or for the deporting of a French journalist in spring 2016.
French authorities explain this lack of follow up through the current administration’s policy of not openly criticizing other nations for their human rights records, and maintaining that private diplomacy is more effective in solving such cases.
But, according to a French senior diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, many senior French officials, including Macron, don’t really understand the Middle East, and those who do are not often heard. There have been small improvements recently, as members of the French delegation at least remembered who they had met in Egyptian rights organizations on their return from Cairo to Paris last time.
The policy is to satisfy French commercial interests, even if they contradict regional interests, and even though Egypt is on a financial drip from Gulf countries and pays on credit.
The two countries also prefer to exchange medals of honor on the sly. Le Drian was publicly recognized last February in Cairo for his contribution to an “unprecedented boom” in military cooperation, according to a statement from the Egyptian presidency. Sisi decorated him with “the order of the Republic of the first category.” In exchange, Le Drian awarded the Egyptian minister in charge of military production, Mohamed al-Asar, “Commander of the Legion of Honor” — the highest French distinction for his role in strengthening relations between France and Egypt. Asar is among a few ministers who has remained in government since the days of Mubarak. He has been accused of having a hand in the Maspero massacre in October 2011. Asar’s award is not listed in the registers of the Legion d’Honneur. When asked about this, an employee merely remarked that some medals exchanged between officials don’t appear publicly in the listings.
In recent years, France’s relationship with Egypt has been developed for the sake of fighting terrorism, preventing unwanted migrants from arriving on European coasts and agreeing arms deals. But does this relationship have any benefits besides contributing to the legitimation of a repressive power? Absolutely not, and many Egyptians are well aware of this. During Sisi’s French visit, Egyptians commented on social networks: “Shame on you France,” and the “France of Macron is an international disgrace.”