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Egypt abuses put French military deals in spotlight as Macron heads to Cairo

Philippe Lopez, AFP | File photo of French President Emmanuel Macron welcoming Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Elysée Palace in October 2017.

As Emmanuel Macron heads to Egypt, activists are calling on the French president to address abuses at an Egyptian shipyard building battleships in partnership with a French company. But with multi-billion euro military deals at stake, will he comply?

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In May 2016, hundreds of workers at the Alexandria Shipyard Company in northern Egypt staged a two-day, peaceful sit-in over fairly routine labour rights issues. The employees were demanding improvements in their work conditions – including safety equipment – and wage increases commensurate with the national monthly minimum wage.

The nature of the sit-in did not appear to be particularly crippling or adversarial: workers demonstrated in shifts while production continued at Alexandria Shipyard, which is owned and operated by the Egyptian military.

Workers demonstrate at Alexandria Shipyard, May 2016. (Photo via CTUWS)

The response to the sit-in though has shocked international labour rights defenders. In a systematic crackdown, the Egyptian military suspended hundreds of Alexandria Shipyard employees and arrested over two dozen workers. The latter were only released months later after they were forced to resign from their jobs.

But the ordeal did not end there. More than two years after the sit-in incident, the 26 civilian workers who were released from jail still face trial in a military court, which has delayed a verdict 30 times. Meanwhile hundreds of Alexandria Shipyard employees are still barred from the factory, according to a report by the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders released this week.

French managerial staff on site

The labour rights violations have proceeded under the noses of managerial staff of the French company, Naval Group, according to the 45-page report, “Striking Back: Egypt’s Attack on Labour Rights Defenders”. Since a 2014 military deal was signed between France and Egypt, the Alexandria Shipyard has been working full throttle on the €1 billion arms deal reached during a visit by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Paris.

Under the deal, France was to furnish four Gowind battleships to the Egyptian Navy. The contract was won by Naval Group -- in which the French state holds a 62 percent majority stake. The French-Egyptian agreement stipulated that the first corvette class battleship would be produced in France while the other three were to be built in Egypt under a transfer of technology agreement.

The first Gowind battleship was delivered to the Egyptian Navy at a ceremony in the northwestern port city of Lorient in September 2017. The second, hailed as “the first warship built in Egypt", was launched last year.

The Front Line Defenders report states that during the two-year labour dispute – which saw civilian workers in police stations and military tribunals while their lawyers faced intimidation by the Egyptian military – Naval Group staff had a “permanent presence” at the factory as per the 2014 contract agreement. A source close to Alexandria Shipyard told researchers that “between 2014 and 2015, between 15 and 25 Naval Group staff and contractors were present daily on the site, with numbers depending on the GOWIND [sic] production stage".

When asked about the allegations, Naval Group Press Relations Director Emmanuel Gaudez declined to comment. In an emailed response to FRANCE 24, Gaudez noted, “The Egyptian shipyard is not the subcontractor of Naval Group. We have no leeway to intervene in labour-related matters. The Alexandria Shipyard (ASY) is a public construction site governed by Egyptian law; we do not intervene in internal affairs.The Egyptian Ministry of Defence has a direct contract at the Alexandria Shipyard in Egypt. Alexandria Shipyard (ASY) is a public shipyard whose personnel are managed according to Egyptian law.”

New deals on the cards

Egypt has routinely ranked high in the pecking order of the world’s worst human rights abusers with the allegations spiraling since Sisi took power in a 2013 military coup.

In its 2018 World Report released Thursday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted that since Sisi “secured a second term in a largely unfree and unfair presidential election in March, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests".

The violations have not affected military and trade deals between Paris and Cairo, which have increased since the Obama administration temporarily embargoed US weapons sales to the Sisi administration following the 2013 coup.

Franco-Egyptian economic cooperation is set to receive a further boost later this month when Macron arrives in Egypt January 27 on a two-day official visit. The French presidential visit is expected to see the signing of new deals, with French Ambassador to Egypt Stéphane Romatet telling the Egyptian media last month that the visit was a “good occasion to announce the new deals which we are working on now, however, it’s too early to reveal more details".

France’s ‘deafening silence’ on Egyptian abuses

Over the past few years, successive French presidents have routinely faced questions and calls from journalists and activists on the Sisi administration’s rights abuses. They are typically met with evasive replies, leading Amnesty International to slam France’s “deafening silence” on Egyptian human rights.

During his first meeting with Sisi in October 2017, Macron told reporters in Paris that it was not up to him to “lecture” his Egyptian counterpart on human rights abuses. “I believe in the sovereignty of states, and therefore, just as I don’t accept being lectured on how to govern my country, I don’t lecture others,” said Macron at a joint news conference.

Macron however is governing a nation with robust, established labour rights and a populace that is pugnacious about getting their concerns heard. Sisi faces no such obstacles and has effectively stifled any hint of public discontent.

He has been aided in recent years by the increasing takeover over the Egyptian economy by the country’s powerful military.

Egypt’s ‘khaki economy’

Estimates of the militarisation of the economy  dubbed “the khaki economy” and “Egyptian Military Inc.”  are hard to pinpoint given the shadowy nature of the military’s holdings as well as the intimidation of journalists and researchers inside the country. In an investigative report published last year, Reuters quoted a leading Egyptian political scientist, who declined to be named, as estimating that the military accounted for about three percent of Egypt’s GDP.

Economists say the militarisation of the economy is the main structural impediment to Egypt’s development, with the IMF issuing a 2017 warning that private sector development and job creation in the world’s most populous Arab nation “might be hindered by involvement of entities under the Ministry of Defence".

The khaki takeover has a direct effect on labour rights abuses in Egypt, according to Moataz El Fegiery, Middle East and North Africa coordinator at Front Line Defenders. “The military’s increasing influence over the economy has undermined workers’ movements and the security of labour rights defenders,” said El Fegiery at a press conference at the Paris headquarters of French trade union, CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) to unveil the latest report.

Labour rights defenders in Egypt today are “the most marginalised category of human rights defenders", noted El Fegiery, since they “challenge at once the political and financial paths the government is pursuing”.

The 2016 kidnapping and killing of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who was researching trade union movements in Egypt, has highlighted the dangers confronting labour rights activists and experts. Italian prosecutors have named several members of Egypt’s national security agency as suspects. Three years after Regeni’s body was discovered with signs of torture, justice has still not been served in the high-profile murder case, which strained relations between Rome and Cairo.

The extent of the crackdown underscores the Sisi regime’s fear of the collective strength of workers and trade unions, which have historically been powerful social mobilisers in Egypt. “The intent is clearly to silence and de-politicise the labour movement and put preventative measures against any potential labour movement,” said El Fegiery. “President Macron will visit Egypt at the end of January and this is an opportunity to raise concerns because a major case involves a French company and it is the responsibility of France to defend defenders of human rights.”

Stability over accountability

But economic and security interests often trump human rights concerns.

Macron’s regional trip later this month includes a stop in Cyprus, where he will attend a January 29 summit of the EU Med Group of seven southern European nations on the frontline of the bloc’s Mediterranean migration crisis.

With both France and Egypt concerned about the security situation in Libya and the threat from jihadist groups, France, like many in the international community, views Sisi as a guarantor of stability in a troubled region.

But France’s focus on security is short-sighted, noted El Fegiery. “Security will never be achieved by ignoring good governance. What Egypt needs is not arms, but economic growth, good governance and transparency,” he said.

New French law to hold companies accountable

In recent years, there have been attempts to get companies to commit to these goals via corporate social responsibility (CSR) plans that require businesses to promote “responsible growth” and “zero tolerance” for unethical conduct.

The Naval Group joined the UN Global Complex  the world’s largest corporate social responsibility programme  in 2014, and the company’s press statements frequently cite a commitment to CSR. But the UN compact is entirely voluntary and lacks any enforcement mechanisms.

In February 2017, the French National Assembly passed a Duty of Vigilance Law that calls on companies to establish mechanisms to prevent human rights and environmental abuses. The law applies to companies headquartered in France that employ at least 5,000 employees in France, or at least 10,000 employees worldwide, including through direct and indirect subsidiaries.

A month later, the French Constitutional Court upheld the legislation, but struck down a provision of civil penalties for companies that fail to develop a diligence plan.

While French trade unions and civil society groups have welcomed the new law, they are still examining ways to apply it. “The CFDT is committed to doing its utmost to promote the Duty of Vigilance Law and we are paying close attention to the way it will be applied to concerned companies. Even though it’s too early to say, it’s true that in this case, the way this law is implemented and what it will require of companies, could be a pertinent action tool,” said Fabrice Couderc, CFDT confederal secretary.

Until such time, few expect Macron to publicly address labour rights abuses with his Egyptian counterpart on his latest visit. “The usual response when one poses these questions to heads-of-state about their dialogue on human rights is always the same – they prefer a confidential discussion over megaphone diplomacy,” said Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. “Nobody knows really what transpires in the meetings between politicians and their counterparts abroad, which is why it’s important for civil society groups to take the time to raise the issue, write reports, name names and signal their concerns.”

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