On the Egyptian presidency website there is a page dedicated to the awards and medals that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi received long before he became president. Yet, the list of 17 honours excludes his most recent – France’s Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, which French President Emmanuel Macron bestowed upon him during the latter’s state visit last week.
Human rights activists and French media outlets complained that El-Sisi does not deserve such an honour, given his government’s dismal human rights record.
In Italy, Italian veteran journalist Corrado Augias also protested by returning his own French medal to the French embassy in Rome, because the same medal was given to El-Sisi.
Augias accuses El-Sisi’s government of involvement in the kidnapping and killing of Italian student-researcher Giulio Regeni, who was killed in Cairo in 2016. Augias asserted that El-Sisi is responsible for the: “Criminal behaviour committed by his men.”
French media were banned from attending the awards ceremony at the Elysée Palace. A French diplomat played down the matter by explaining that awarding a Legion of Honour is part of the protocol of a state visit.
Human rights issues in Egypt were the rallying cry of different French media outlets and human rights organisations during El-Sisi’s visit to Paris. Egyptian authorities are accused of systematic abuse against civil activists and opponents.
However, the efforts failed to make an impression on Macron. He offered his guest the full honours of a state visit, including a cavalry parade through Paris.
As usual, human rights matters took a back seat in the bilateral relations between Egypt and France. Defence, economics and Libya were prioritised.
But President Macron did discuss human rights concerns with his guest, particularly the case of Palestinian-Egyptian dual citizen Ramy Shaath, currently jailed in Egypt. Shaath, the son of prominent Palestinian politician Nabil Shaath, is married to French national Celine Lebrun. He was arrested in July 2019, in his Cairo home. Some say he was jailed for his criticism of normalising ties with Israel. He is the local coordinator of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement campaigning to boycott Israel, given its terrible human rights abuses against Palestinians.
Yet, many see the Egyptian-French summit last week as another important step in further strengthening bilateral relations at such a critical time in the Mediterranean region. Both countries share concerns about serious regional issues, including the conflict in Libya and Turkey’s increasing activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Both countries are involved in the Libyan conflict and see its potential regional repercussions should the conflict continue unsolved. Cairo and Paris also unhappily perceive the increasing dominant Turkish role in western Libya. Both expressed anger when Ankara signed security and maritime deals with Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) last year.
Ankara maintains military troops and Syrian mercenary fighters in Libya, supporting the GNA, while both Cairo and Paris support rival Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. The LNA is also benefitting from Russian mercenaries provided by the Wagner Group, a private Russian security company with links to the Kremlin. However, both France and Egypt are more worried about Turkey’s presence in Libya than the Russian involvement.
In the Eastern Mediterranean maritime dispute, Turkey is accused by France and Egypt of violating international law and stirring tensions with Greece over prospecting for oil and gas in the area. In January this year, France even sent war frigates to the area, further escalating tensions between the arch-rivals Greece and Turkey.
France, Greece and Turkey are NATO members, but that did not stop the French president from pledging to step up a strategic bond with Greece in the face of Turkey’s “behaviour” in the area, as he put it.
Egypt is also concerned about what it deems as Turkey’s expansionist ambitions, particularly in Libya. Last June, President El-Sisi publicly threatened to send troops to Libya in support of the LNA if Turkey backed GNA forces across the Sirte-Jufra line, currently separating the LNA and the GNA in the middle of Libya – the country’s oil-producing region.
Bilaterally, Cairo has been a big arms buyer of the French defence industry. In 2015, it signed a $1 billion deal to buy two French-built Mistral helicopter carriers, the last of which was delivered in September 2016. At the same time, Egypt has also ordered four 100-metre-long corvettes to enhance its marine capabilities. In the same year in 2015, Egypt also signed over another $5.2 billion to buy 24 Rafal fighter jets and took the first delivery in July of that year.
Faced with an increasingly deadly Jihadist threat in the Sinai Peninsula and instability on its western borders with Libya, Egypt has been boosting its military capabilities since President El-Sisi came to power in 2014.
President Macron is also seeking Egyptian help against what he termed as “Islamist separatism” in France. Cairo is home to Sunni Islam’s foremost institution, Al-Azhar. Its grand imam, Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, criticised Macron’s “Islamist separatism” remarks last month, prompting the French foreign minister to meet him in Cairo to express the “deep respect” France has for Islam.
With all that in mind, human rights issues took a back seat during President El-Sisi’s visit to France.
In a joint press conference with his guest, President Macron was very clear about this, asserting: “I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights].”
France has a long history of warming up, and even helping, strongmen in Africa and the Middle East, despite protests from international rights groups. France is as hypocritical as any other former colonial power.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.