President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s two-day visit to France this week foregrounded the willingness of Cairo and Paris to focus on areas in which they are in agreement rather than concentrate on issues, such as the contentious human rights file, over which they differ.
The visit began on Sunday and ended the following day with a joint press conference attended by Al-Sisi and his host Emmanuel Macron during which the French president clearly stated that military and economic cooperation with Egypt would not be linked to the country’s record on human and political rights.
“I will not condition matters of defence 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.”
During a visit to Egypt in early 2019 Macron had been vociferous in calling on his hosts to better observe human and personal rights. This time round, however, he chose to back pedal on his earlier position, though he said he had brought up a number of human rights cases with Egyptian officials behind closed doors.
According to an informed Egyptian government source, the French are quite open in expressing their views “in private”, and their “interventions have often been accommodated”. He added, however, that “France has extensive economic interests in Egypt — not just in terms of arms sales but also wide-ranging cooperation — and clearly the French president does not want to undermine these interests.
“European countries that had taken tough positions against Egypt over human rights in recent years have inevitably back-tracked given the weight of their political and economic interests, and I don’t think the French want to go there.”
Engaging with Egypt within a constructive relationship that allows for cooperation and candid discussions over points of disagreement is the template France is adopting with regard to Egypt, Macron said in his joint press conference with Al-Sisi in Paris.
France, Macron continued, is mindful of the “sovereignty of states and peoples” and unwilling to take any measures that might undermine Egypt’s war against terrorism and its role in securing stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The situation in the east of the Mediterranean was high on the agenda of the two presidents during their Monday afternoon meeting in the French capital.
Egyptian officials say containing Turkish expansionism is a major concern in both Cairo and Paris. In the words of one: “If there are two men in this region who truly resent the policies of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan they are Al-Sisi and Macron, though each for a different reason.”
Al-Sisi has long resented Ankara’s opposition to the political transition that Egypt passed through in 2013, as well as Erdogan’s continued backing and promotion of political Islam across the Arab region. Macron, meanwhile, is particularly worried about Erdogan’s attempts to impose a degree of control over the east of the Mediterranean that would be detrimental not just to Greece but to countries, like France, that have coastlines on the north of the Mediterranean Sea. Macron is also profoundly opposed to the role Turkey is playing in supporting small Islamist groups in Europe, particularly in France.
In the last three years Egypt and France have also cooperated to contain Erdogan’s influence in Libya, and the situation in Egypt’s western neighbour will also have been high on the agenda of the Al-Sisi-Macron talks on Monday, as would Erdogan’s attempts to create closer ties with regimes across North Africa, from Tunisia to Algeria, and Morocco to Mauritania.
According to Egyptian officials, the two leaders addressed Libya’s future political path, how to consolidate the fragile ceasefire, and which political figures, from the east, west and south of Libya, Cairo and Paris should support.
According to a source at Al-Azhar, France is also counting on the influential Sunni institution to hold training courses for preachers in French mosques in order to strengthen moderate interpretations of Islam. The source said that Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, had promised help along these lines to the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian during the top French diplomat’s visit to Cairo a few weeks ago.
“The French authorities are unhappy about the way the Turks have been using their influence with some mosques preachers in France to promote regressive readings of Islam and they would like Al-Azhar to step in,” the source said.
Al-Sisi and Macron are both acutely aware of Erdogan’s overtures to a wide range of Islamist groups in North Africa. The two leaders will also have discussed Turkey’s role in the north of Syria and the possible managed decline of Ankara’s presence on the ground as part of a deal with Moscow to allow Russia to consolidate its influence.
Cairo’s view, say sources, is that the best way to help Syria rid itself of foreign military meddling is for the world to re-engage with Bashar Al-Assad. The US, under outgoing President Donald Trump, had opposed any rapprochement between regional capitals and Assad. With the arrival of the Biden administration, sources add, Al-Sisi found it opportune to remind his French host of the need to bring Syria back into the fold to avoid further fragmentation.
In addition, Al-Sisi and Macron d the possibility of cooperating to re-launch long-stalled Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. After receiving some positive signals from the Biden foreign policy team, to the effect that the new US president’s administration will work on the basis of a two-state solution, the Palestinian Authority has signalled that it is more willing to engage in moves to restart negotiations and Cairo is counting on the role Macron could play in encouraging Palestinian and Israeli leaders to show the political will necessary to start picking up the pieces of the long-abandoned negotiation process.
Egypt, Jordan, France and Germany have already engaged in four-way coordination this year in an attempt to chart a pathway towards the restart of Palestinian-Israeli talks. Aware that it may well be months before Biden has time to dust down the file, the four countries are willing to push slowly to restart indirect talks.
The two leaders, inevitably, will also have discussed expanding military cooperation, including military drills and counter-terrorism collaboration in the Sahel and Sahara.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.