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Macron, Sisi and the human rights struggle in the Arab world

December 11, 2020 at 11:30 am

President of France, Emmanuel Macron (L) welcomes President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (R) prior to talks at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France on 7 December 2020. [Julien Mattia – Anadolu Agency]

When the leader of the coup government in Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, began his recent visit to France, a wave of human rights reports and appeals reached his French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron. He was being asked to put pressure on Sisi to end his regime’s human rights violations.

This is likely to have the same end result as other reports and appeals made during Sisi’s visits to other Western countries, such as Britain, Germany and the United States. In short, there will be no change in the Egyptian regime’s policies; human rights violations will not end; and Egyptians will discover once again that Western claims about caring for human rights everywhere are meaningless.

Macron’s statements during his press conference with Sisi confirm what we all know; human rights are not a priority for the major Western countries. Their priorities are based on economic and political interests, which can be summarised thus as far as the Middle East is concerned: keep signing lucrative arms, gas and oil deals with countries in the region, including Egypt; keep fighting “terrorism”, the euphemism for Islamists, whether those who adopt jihadism or political movements which reject violence and want democracy; block migration to Europe; and maintain the military superiority of the colonial-settler state of Israel.

Such priorities require authoritarian regimes to be in place, which rule by force and are easier for the West to manipulate than democratic governments which rule for the benefit of their citizens, and not simply to line the pockets of those in power.

Sisi: Our priority is to fight political Islam, Muslim Brotherhood

Once we understand these priorities and put them in context, we can see that human rights are not only beyond the concerns of Western governments, but are also not in the interest of the ruling regimes in the Middle East. Democratic governance that respects human rights is one that represents its people and works to fulfil their aspirations. The latter include freedom and justice, which contradict the interests of the West, as well as the regional regimes.

When Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two years ago, US President Trump said clearly that he would not abandon arms deals with Saudi Arabia or cooperation with the Kingdom to confront Iran. This was despite his admission about the appalling nature of the crime. Western governments don’t care about the dead.

Macron himself was more impudent in his comments about the Washington Post columnist’s killing. After the usual condemnatory preamble, and rhetoric about freedom and human rights, he insisted that the demand to abandon arms deals with France’s rich clients was naive. The few Western countries which announced a freeze on arms deals with Saudi Arabia resumed selling weapons to Riyadh when the voices of condemnation fell quiet.

Sisi's Prisons - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Egypt Sisi’s Prisons – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

There is, therefore, no real point in human rights activists turning to the West for change in their own capitals. The West does not sell justice, it sells illusions; it sells slogans; and it sells weapons which provide employment for their own people and develop their own economy. They may, during election campaigns, listen to their voters, but they don’t listen to the people being tortured in Arab countries who are deprived of their right to vote. In short, Western governments are very selfish; everything they do has a selfish, ulterior motive.

Does this mean that human rights activists should abandon their struggles for justice in their countries? Of course not. What’s needed is for them not to pin all of their hopes on the West, but to look closer to home, as that is where change can be made.

When the Arab revolutions broke out a decade ago, all Western countries delayed declarations of support, because their interests lay with the tyrants and their regimes. Only when the power of the people made significant advances in the revolutionary countries did the West appear ready to adapt to the new realities.

READ: Alongside Sisi, Macron says France will sell arms to Egypt irrespective of rights 

The popular revolutions were relatively successful thanks to the steadfastness of their supporters, not Western pressure on the Arab regimes. This is a fact that will not change; the domestic arena will continue to determine the stance taken by the West, not the other way around.

If human rights and political activists accept this, they will focus their efforts on the struggle inside their own countries, by enlightening their people about their basic rights and creating popular pressure on the tyrants. This is what will remain in the end, not those robotic statements by Western governments whose carefully prepared scripts are written so as not to upset the Arab regimes.

The struggle at home will not be easy, and it will not be a picnic under oppressive regimes, but it is the only thing capable of achieving real and sustainable change in the Arab world. Like other oppressed people around the world, we Arabs are destined to change our reality with our own hands. No nation has witnessed any real positive change through the world powers, and it will never happen. This is a historical fact, and it is unlikely to change.

Translated from Arabi21, 8 December 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.