Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi begins on Monday a visit to France to underscore close ties, but with a renewed crackdown on political dissent at home, the trip has overshadowed French efforts to nurture their security and business relationship.
With both countries concerned by the political vacuum in Libya, instability across the region and the threat from jihadist groups in Egypt, they have cultivated closer economic and military ties during Sisi’s rise to power.
Rights organisations have accused President Emmanuel Macron of turning a blind eye to what they say are increasing violations of freedoms by Sisi’s government ahead of the new U.S. administration, which has vowed to take a tougher stance over human rights abuses.
French officials dismiss this and say Paris is following a policy of not openly criticising countries over human rights so as to be more effective in private on a case by case basis.
Macron’s government in November criticised Egypt for the arrest of members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) after they briefed senior diplomats in Cairo and was met with a firm rebuke.
“The president … will obviously continue to express his positions on this subject,” a French presidential official told reporters, adding that Paris saw a “positive signal” after the release of the EIPR officials hours before Sisi came to France.
“It is a partnership in favour of the stability of the region.”
Sisi will be received with great pomp on Monday morning with a military welcome ceremony.
CONTRACTS DRY UP
The partnership came under strain in November after anger in Egypt over Macron’s defence of caricatures depicting the Prophet Mohammad, considered blasphemous by Muslims.
“This tarnishes the image of France in the eyes of democracy in Egypt and the region especially when Macron stands up against violence and extremism in France and then gives long statements about values,” said Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Right Watch.
“But when he is tested in Egypt and the region he sides with the oppressors and not values he says he is defending.”
Between 2013-2017, France was the main weapons supplier to Egypt. Those contracts have dried up, including deals for more Rafale fighter jets and warships that had been at an advanced stage. Diplomats say that is as much to do with financing issues as with France’s response to human rights concerns.
French parliamentary recommendations to the government in November aimed at toughening controls on weapons sales overseas – a particularly opaque system in France – highlighted the deals with Egypt. The report said some of the equipment sold was being used for an internal crackdown.
Investigative website Disclose published on Monday a classified government note outlining its hostility to the recommendations, which it said would impact national defence and the weapons export industry as a whole if implemented.