French President Emmanuel Macron did not find any embarrassment in rejecting dozens of international human rights organisations’ pleas and instead rolled the red carpet out for the head of the Egyptian regime, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He also found no indignation in announcing his opposition to the link between the grave human rights violations committed by the Egyptian security services and French arms sales to Egypt. Although varieties of them are not only smuggled to the Libyan coup marshal Khalifa Haftar, they are also used against the Egyptian people in cities, towns, and villages during peaceful protests.
The available pretext, whether it was announced by Paris and Cairo or leaked exclusively by the Egyptian regime, is the congruence of interests about the stances of the two countries regarding Libya and confronting Turkish policies in the eastern Mediterranean over different issues, not just oil and gas exploration. It includes the penetration of the French Mediterranean influence. In a somewhat strange harmony, Paris and Cairo agreed to call it “the fight against Islamism.” Within the rules of pragmatic realpolitik, to use the popular classical expression, this harmony does not seem bizarre, anomalous, or unprecedented.
On the other hand, the funny thing is that Macron was ashamed of bringing French correspondents to a party hosted by the Elysee Palace at the end of al-Sisi’s visit and witnessed the latter awarding the highest French medal of honour. Pictures of the celebration were leaked by the Egyptian delegation, which was naturally not ashamed to publish and celebrate on the Egyptian presidency website. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, expressed her aspiration for joint projects in the culture and services sectors.
France completely ignored the demonstrations and chants of more than 20 human rights organisations against the celebration of a tyrannical and coup general who was walking and frolicking in the capital of the French Revolution and the country of human rights. It is noteworthy that the French Revolution’s descendants who received al-Sisi are not the first in this regard, as former French President Jacques Chirac did it with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Another former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, did it with al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak when he placed them on the podium of honour dedicated to celebrating the French Revolution. And when al-Assad crossed every possible “red line,” Macron was ashamed of a similar medal of honour. Chirac had hung it on his chest and then the award was withdrawn. Al-Assad was quick to anticipate the drama and remove the medal himself, so he did not return the goods to its people but rather announced that they are already in excess of his regime’s and his personal needs.
Returning to al-Sisi and his visit, it concluded by strengthening cooperation between Paris and Cairo in facing the Middle East’s crises at the expense of human rights. This is not new to Macron with al-Sisi, especially since the former refused in 2017 to “give lessons” in human rights to his Egyptian counterpart. As a result, he was exposed to a wave of criticism, which forced him to change his rhetoric during his visit to Cairo in January 2019, but he returned to the same tone on the last visit.
Rather, it was surely solidified that future French arms sales to Egypt would not be conditional on improving human rights there. He attributed this to the fact that he did not wish to weaken Cairo’s ability to combat terrorism in the region, claiming that pursuing a dialogue policy would be more effective than a boycott policy.
On the other hand, al-Sisi defended himself by saying that it is not appropriate to portray Egypt as a country with an authoritarian regime, in light of what it is doing for the sake of its people and for the stability of the region. This came after he refused to answer questions related to the arrest of tens of thousands of opponents since he came to power following a military coup in 2013.
Human rights organisations refer to the high hopes placed on the popular revolution that began on January 25, 2011, and led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. However, those organisations say today that Egypt has turned ten years after that revolution into a vast prison. Tens of thousands of political, human rights, and media detainees are still languishing in prisons, and Egypt is still registering record numbers in the implementation of death sentences.
Alain Gresh, editor-in-chief of Orient XXI, points to “Macron’s disregard for democratic values, especially freedom of expression, of which France claims to be its godfather, in its relationship with al-Sisi’s regime.” He asserts that no state bases its foreign policy on defending human rights only, and Paris justifies its relationship with Cairo by strategic considerations, which is the necessary stability for Egypt as a “bulwark against terrorism,” which makes it possible to justify selling weapons, some of which may be used for internal repression. Dictatorships have always been fertile ground for instability and terror, Gresh notes.