French President Emmanuel Macron’s three-day visit to Egypt included the signing of a plethora of business deals as well as visits to cultural sites. But what grasped the attention of the international as well as local media was talk about the human rights situation in Egypt.
The subject surfaced during a joint press conference held by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Macron during which the French president expressed his hopes that Egypt would handle human rights differently.
“Stability and durable peace go hand in hand with respect for individual dignity and the rule of law. The search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights,” said Macron.
“Things haven’t gone in the right direction since 2017. Bloggers and journalists are in prison and because of this Egypt’s image is suffering.”
Before the visit Macron had been pressured by French NGOs to discuss human rights in Egypt with President Al-Sisi after being criticised for telling reporters attending a press conference during Al-Sisi’s visit to Paris in 2017 that he would not lecture Egypt on rights.
Al-Sisi responded to Macron’s raising the subject by saying human rights in Egypt cannot be divorced from the turbulence the region finds itself in and the battle against terrorism.
Last year Egypt launched a comprehensive military campaign in large parts of Sinai, the Nile Delta and the Western Desert, where militants have waged attacks. Terrorist attacks have claimed the lives of many military and police personnel as well as civilians during the last four years.
“We are not like Europe or the United States. We are a country that has its own characteristics, in a region that has the same,” said Al-Sisi.
“Egypt will not progress through blogging. It will advance through the work, effort and the perseverance of its sons.”
Reuters reported that eight human rights groups had urged Macron to deliver a strong message on rights during his trip, demanding that “unjustly detained” prisoners be freed and any arms sales that could be used in rights violations be suspended.
Al-Sisi denied allegations that Egyptian police use disproportionate force against unarmed demonstrators.
“Protesting is a right guaranteed by the constitution,” said the president. He said no armoured vehicles had been used against protests since 2011.
“All we ask people is that people protest within the law,” said Al-Sisi, in a reference to Egypt’s 2013 protest law.
Tewfik Aclimandos, an expert on Egyptian-French relations, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “I believe that Macron does not truly grasp the Egyptian case. He insists on confusing democratic transition with revolutionism. He is wrong to judge the Egyptian case using the criteria applied to the Eastern European experience. Perhaps it would be better if he used the course of the French Revolution as a gauge.
“We have our own options to choose from in Egypt. These are different to the options that others have had. We are not obliged to pass through a phase of fascism such as that which France endured during the 1930s and 1940s, and at such a catastrophic cost. We do not need for 10 million of our citizens to die in order to emerge immune to fascism. We don’t want that. It is also important to bear in mind that Europe has put the sectarian and theocratic dimensions behind it, which is not the case in this region,” said Aclimandos.
Regional concerns were also on the agenda of Macron’s visit, according to sources close to developments in relations between Egypt and France. Prime among these was the situation in Libya on which Cairo and Paris share similar outlooks.
Mohamed Kamal, a professor of political science and expert in international relations, told the Weekly that “Macron was interested in discussing foreign policy issues related to areas where Egyptian and French interests overlap in the Middle East.
“Whether Macron raised the issues because the French Foreign Ministry had asked him to or as a means to divert attention away from the domestic situation in France, the fact is that they must be discussed because of the two countries’ shared concerns with regard to the situations in Libya, in Yemen and in Syria, and with regard to the peace process in the Middle East.”
While military cooperation has always taken centre stage in Egyptian-French relations, in the form of historic arms deals, joint military manufactures, armaments were not expected to be subject to any memoranda of understanding (MoUs) during this visit. Informed sources explained to the Weekly that there is already an array of bilateral agreements with the French that have been put into effect or that are currently being implemented.
The most recent were concluded during the first Egyptian Defence Exposition (EDEX) in December 2018 during which France’s Naval Group obtained the lion’s share of deals. It is no coincidence Naval Group plans to establish a regional headquarters in Cairo soon.
In tandem with the beginning of the visit a joint economic forum opened in Cairo. The event saw the signing of 32 MoUs and investment contracts in the fields of renewable energy, transport, health, social safety nets, entrepreneurship, communications, small and midium-sized enterprises, automotive technology and women’s empowerment. The total value of the agreements comes to around 1.6 billion euros.
“Bilateral relations between Egypt and France are on an upward trajectory,” economic expert Magdi Sobhi told the Weekly.
“Economically, this relationship should be viewed in the wider context of the EU, of which France is a cornerstone. In terms of volume of trade with Egypt France ranks between second and third among EU countries. It is an important source of wheat, albeit not our main source.”
Around 160 French firms operate in Egypt in the fields of infrastructure, transport and communications, energy and renewable energy, information technology and the financial sector, employing upwards of 6,000 Egyptians.
The number of firms is expected to increase considerably in the near future.
“We will also see growth in the fields of joint manufactures, especially in the manufacture of French cars which are currently being produced elsewhere in the Arab region, in Morocco and Jordan. There has been talk of Peugeot starting up in Egypt. If so, Cairo could become an export hub for French-made vehicles to other Arab countries. Renault is known to sell well in Egypt,” says Sobhi.
“Until now, France has lagged behind other countries with which Egypt has good bilateral relations in this field.”
President Macron began his Egyptian tour in the south, with a visit to Abu Simbel. According to Kamal, “exchanges of visits are significant and the French president’s visit signifies how important Egypt is as a regional power.
“His visit to Abu Simbel was extremely important for tourism in Egypt. It conveys the message that Egypt is one of the world’s major civilisational and touristic destinations. It also conveys the message that Egypt is safe and stable, which is extremely important to Cairo and to Egyptian tourism.”
Macron also visited the two most important religious officials in Egypt, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, who received the French president at Al-Azhar, and the Patriarch of the See of St Mark Pope Tawadros II, who received Macron at the papal residence in St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya.
Following his meeting with the pope, Macron said he had looked forward to the encounter since France attached great importance to the development of Egyptian society, of which Copts are an intrinsic part.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A message to the West