Egypt seeks change of focus as French president arrives

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 17 Apr 2016

Sisi- Hollande
File Photo: French President Francois Hollande, right, poses with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014. Sissi is in France for a two-day official visit (Photo: AP)

The road from the airport to the presidential palace in Heliopolis, eastern Cairo, is already lined with pictures of French president François Hollande and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Egyptian and French flags also decorate the path Hollande will take upon arrival in Cairo on Sunday for a three-day visit that Egyptian authorities are hoping will help divert negative reporting on Egypt in the international press in the past few weeks.

Egyptian officials say Egypt has recently suffered some bad news coverage: the scepticism of Italian authorities over the cooperation of the Egyptian police and prosecution in the case of the Italian researcher Guilio Regini, whose body was found in the first week of February; negative remarks of Russian President Vladmir Puttin that cast doubt over airport security in Egypt; and political protests against the executive decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to the Saudis, ostensibly to end a maritime demarcation dispute.

Today, Cairo is hoping for “good news” as Hollande, one of the strongest allies of the government in Egypt, arrives with a delegation comprising more than 60 buisnessmen and heads of major French companies to sign an expansive arms deal and 25 agreements and MOUs that cover cooperation in renewable energy, urban planning, transport, culture and technical training.

“Hollande‘s visit is an important one for sure, not just because it offers a definite opportunity for some good news to be reported about the efforts the government and the president are exerting to pursue serious development, but also because it allows for Egypt and France, traditionally strong allies, to discuss a host of regional issues of interest to both sides,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

On top of the list of regional developments is the situation in Syria that is not, according to concerned European and Arab diplomats, moving forward.

“I understand the issue of managing the refugees crisis that is happening as a result of the Syrian plight, and that has been influencing Europe significantly — particulary countries of southern Europe, including France — is essential to President Hollande,” the same diplomat said.

Hollande is arriving to Cairo on his way from Lebanon, the first leg of a three-stop Middle East visit that will end in Jordan, to which he arrives late Tuesday afternoon.

In Lebanon, Hollande met with the prime minister and speaker of parliament, given the continued presidential vacancy that he appealed to Lebanese to bring to an end. During his visit, Hollande pledged 100 million Euros in aid to Lebanon.

The question of Syrian refguees, over which countries like France are losing much sleep, will also figure high on Hollande's talks in Jordan, that is also playing host to considerable share of Syrian refugees.

Also on the agenda of common regional issues of interest to both for Egypt and France is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The government of Hollande is hoping (one Palestinian diplomat says "hoping against hope") to hold an international conference on long stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The French envoy for the peace process was in Cairo, as part of a regional tour, a few days ago but failed as of yet to formulate a clear proposal on what needs to be done to allow for the peace conference the French are promoting to happen.

According to concerned Egyptian diplomats, Cairo is offering “maximum possible support to French efforts” despite a realistic awareness that its chances make a difference are close to zero.

In the analysis of some Palestinian and Egyptian diplomats, the French are simply trying to hold on to their traditional diplomatic status in Middle East, and it is not proving easy.

“The French have been unable to fix the presidential vacancy of Lebanon for three years now, and they cannot claim any particularly warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, to expect him to give them any concessions, small or big, to make any negotiations process with the Palestinians possible, no matter how compromising [Palestinian Authority chair Mahmoud Abbas] is or will be,” said a Palestinian diplomat.

“But it is worth supporting anyway, at least to keep the file afloat, rather than have it firmly buried. Maybe we will reach the UN General Assembly in autumn with a potential ministerial meeting to start to defrost Israeli-Palestinian peace talks,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

During his state visit President Hollande is assured, according to informed sources, to bring up issues that are not to the liking of his host president El-Sisi: conditions of human rights in Egypt, the unresolved case of the murder Italian researcher Regini, and the case of a French citizen who was allegedly killed in a Cairo police station in the autumn of 2013.

The family of Eric Lang, a French teacher in Egypt, according to the French press, has been recently pressing upon the French authorities to ask Cairo to reveal the "real story" behind the death of their son.

Upon growing European concern over the case of Regini, Hollande is expected to bring up the matter with his Egyptian counterpart. The situation of human rights in Egypt, which was discussed with the French special envoy who was in the country last month, is forcing itself on the agenda of the two-day French-Egyptian talks.

Cairo last month welcomed a French decision to block a diplomatic demarche to bring up the issue of "forced disappearances" in Egypt in the UN Human Rights Council, saying it had accommodated the "open and relatively unequivocal remarks of the French human rights envoy."

This week, Cairo seemed confident that Hollande would pay more attention to the biateral economic relations, arms deals and the peace process than Lang, Regini.

“We expect our French friends to realise that we are going through a war on terror in Sinai and that we cannot take risks on matters of security,” said the Egyptian diplomat.

The visit of Hollande to Egypt comes at a weak moment for the socialist French president whose chances to run for a second term next year appear to be vanishing amid growing disapproval over his performance, rather than by the rise of the right and centre right.

During a widely followed TV interview a couple of days ahead of his Middle East tour, Hollande said he would wait towards the end of this year before he announces any plans on an additional presidential run.

Short link: