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Egypt’s human rights record casts a shadow on Sisi’s visit to France

AFP/HO/Egyptian Presidency | A photo released by the Egyptian Presidency on June 8, 2017 shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Cairo.

As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi makes his first trip to France since the election of French President Emmanuel Macron, human rights groups are calling on the European nation to stop ignoring human rights abuses in Egypt.


Sisi and Macron are scheduled to have their first formal meeting in Paris on Tuesday, where they are expected to discuss regional crises and counterterrorism. The Élysée Palace issued a statement saying that the presidents would also talk about ways to enhance cultural, economic, educational and military relations between their nations.

Under fire for being “indulgent” of the Egyptian regime’s abuses, Macron’s office said he would raise the issue of human rights during the meeting.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been critical of Egypt’s record on human rights and says France needs to do more to hold Sisi accountable. “The French government should ensure that human rights are central to its relationship with Egypt,” the NGO said in a statement.

But the French leader is unlikely to want to rattle Sisi too much. In recent years Egypt has become an essential market for French financial interests. Last year Egypt bought French fighter planes, warships and a military satellite in a deal worth more than €1 billion. That agreement came on the heels of a €5.2 billion contract signed in 2015 for the purchase of 24 Rafale fighter jets, a multi-mission frigate and missiles.

Direct French investment in Egypt is in excess of $4 billion, making France the sixth largest foreign investor there. And Egypt is France’s biggest market in the Middle East.

More than money

The ties between the two nations are not only financial. In recent years they have worked together on Libya and counterterrorism. France also sees Egypt as an ally in the Middle East peace process.

HRW said it would like to see France make its economic, military and security support of Egypt contingent on human rights improvements there.

“President Macron should not miss the chance to make a first impression on al-Sisi that Egypt’s human rights record will not be given a pass,” HRW’s France director Bénédicte Jeannerod said. “Continuing to support Egypt’s repressive government would betray the country’s brave activists, who face grave risks trying to make their country better.”

French officials say that, contrary to the criticism, the nation has not abandoned its principles in favor of economic and security interests, but that the current administration believes it is more productive to discuss rights concerns in private.

But rights may simply not be a priority for Macron. Reuters reported that the French president told human rights groups on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September that he was aware of the worsening human rights situation in Egypt but his priority was to ensure that Sisi could continue the fight against terrorist groups.

Similarly, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who developed a close relationship with Sisi during his tenure as France’s defence minister, has repeatedly said that his nation is committed to Egypt’s stability. French officials are not alone in believing that maintaining order in Egypt, the region’s most populous nation, is essential to avoiding further unrest in the region.

The terror continues

Yet terror groups continue to stage attacks on Egyptian forces, particularly in Sinai. In the latest assault, at least 54 police officers were killed Saturday when a raid on a militant hideout about 135 km southwest of Cairo was ambushed.

Since Sisi assumed office in 2014 the security situation has steadily deteriorated, and Egypt’s already often brutal security services have become even more so, relying on a “widespread and systematic use of torture", according to HRW.

Egyptians’ rights have eroded as well. Egyptians today are less free to assemble or speak, and the press has largely been muzzled despite the adoption of a relatively liberal constitution in 2014 that guarantees these liberties

Critics of the government are routinely jailed and even disappeared by security forces. Human rights activists are barred from leaving the country and some have had their assets frozen. Internet sites, including those of news organisations, have been blocked, NGOs have been shuttered and their directors targeted. In recent months, Egyptian authorities have undertaken a drastic clampdown on Cairo’s gay community, which was condemned by the United Nations earlier this month.

The hardline approach may be having the opposite effect that both France and Egypt are hoping for. “Egypt’s counterterrorism policy, shadowed by grave abuses and used as a pretext to stifle all forms of peaceful dissent, may be cultivating an environment of radicalisation,” the HRW statement said. “Young people are left with no means to peacefully express their opposition ... Violent attacks have been generally on the rise. Several studies have shown that prisons in Egypt are becoming a fertile environment for radicalisation.

“President Macron should refuse to continue France’s disgraceful policies of indulgence towards al-Sisi’s repressive government,” Jeannerod said. “Saying that issues are discussed but continuing to take no action would be like sweeping the grievances and pains of Egyptians under the carpet.”

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