Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1292, (21 - 27 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Support, French style

The visit of France’s president to Egypt cast a spotlight on differences in the approach of EU member states to Egypt, writes Mohamed Abdel-Baky

Al-Ahram Weekly

French President François Hollande finished a two-day visit to Egypt on 19 April after sealing dozens of arms and economic deals.

Hollande’s visit to Cairo cast European divisions over relations with Egypt into sharp relief. He arrived in Cairo amid deepening Italian-Egyptian tensions following the brutal murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Cairo earlier this year.

Experts and diplomats told Al-Ahram Weekly that Hollande’s visit, along with that of German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who arrived in Cairo on Sunday accompanied by a large delegation, send a strong message to the EU parliament that the union’s largest states —France, Germany and the UK — will not condone any upset in relations with Cairo, or other strong allies in the Middle East, over human rights concerns or other internal issues.

“Germany and France will not allow tensions over minor issue to impact on their strong relations with Egypt, especially given the coordination that exists in fighting terrorism and in the Middle East,” said an Egyptian diplomat who recently served in Brussels.

Two weeks ago Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt for consultations in Rome.

“Maurizio Massari was recalled to the capital for urgent evaluation of what steps to take to ascertain the truth about the barbaric murder of Giulio Regeni,” said the Italian Foreign Ministry in a statement released on 8 April.

Days after Massari’s recall, a high-level French delegation landed in Cairo to prepare for Hollande’s visit, part of a four-day trip to the Middle East that began on Saturday in Lebanon and was to end on Tuesday in Jordan.

In Lebanon, Hollande met with the prime minister and speaker of parliament and pledged 100 million euros in aid to Lebanon.

Speaking on Monday, Hollande strove to give the impression that he takes a broader view of the difficulties facing Egypt than many of his counterparts in the EU. He said that Egypt faces three main challenges: security, demography and geography.

Hollande described the first challenge as “a security challenge in a region that suffers from disasters, tragedies, deprivation and terrorism”.

The second challenge is a result of a population growing on average by two million a year. Hollande noted that 700,000 people enter the labour market in Egypt every year and the economy has to be able to create jobs for them.

“This demographic renewal is a burden when there’s a lack of preparation and infrastructure to face this population increase,” the French president said during Monday’s Egyptian-French Economic Forum, which he attended alongside President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

At the same event Al-Sisi complained that Europe’s view of the Middle East is “unfair” to the region.

“You look at what is happening in the Middle East from your European standpoint and this is a great injustice,” the Egyptian president said. “You should look at what is happening in the region from our perspective and culture.”

He continued, “Egypt is a country that aims to develop and stand on its feet and take its position among modern nations as a democratic modern state.”

On Sunday, Al-Sisi and Hollande faced several questions about human rights in Egypt, including the Regeni case. During their joint press conference both leaders hinted that disagreements on human rights in Egypt should not bring tension to bilateral ties.

Al-Sisi told reporters that accusations against the police, the judiciary and parliament are plots by “evil folks” to destroy Egypt and alienate it from its Arab and European friends. “What is happening in Egypt is an attempt to break the country’s institutions one by one,” he said.

He added that “European criteria” of human rights should not be applied to struggling countries such as Egypt.

Hollande said that respecting human rights is not an obstacle to fighting jihadists, who have conducted large-scale attacks in both France and Egypt.

“Human rights are not a constraint but also a way to fight against terrorism,” he said. In a reference to the Regeni case,‎ he said, “Individual cases should not heighten the tension between allies but must be discussed instead.”

During Hollande’s visit, agreements to sell arms worth $1.1 billion were signed. They include the purchase of a French military satellite communications system. The acquisitions come in the wake of earlier high-profile French weapons sales to Egypt since Al-Sisi became president, including the purchase of 24 French Rafale fighter jets.

“It is clear that France views Egypt’s role in the region through a strategic lens and not through issues that always bring tension like human rights,” said former minister of foreign affairs and MP Mohamed El-Oraby.

On the eve of Hollande’s visit, rights groups, including Amnesty International, criticised what they called France’s “deafening silence” on allegations of abuses in Egypt.

Hollande met with Egyptian public figures during his visit, including former deputy prime minister Ziad Bahaa Eddin, journalist Abdullah Al-Sinawi, journalist and former presidential hopeful Gamila Ismail, MP Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat and Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University Hala Al-Said.

During the meeting Ali and Ismail criticized Paris for adopting an “unbalanced” policy between human rights and Egyptian-French counterterrorism measures and increasing military cooperation.

“The French president responded by asserting that Egypt’s security is core to regional security,” Al-Sadat told the Weekly. He added that Hollande said he had stressed the “importance of protecting human rights” and not compromising them in the war against terrorism.

“But the meeting mainly focussed on regional issues and the roles France and Egypt can play to restore stability to the Middle East,” he said.

Easing tensions with the EU has been prioritised by the government. Last week a delegation of Egyptian MPs visited Strasbourg to meet with their counterparts in the EU parliament. Their discussions focussed on the resolution issued by the EU parliament on 16 March claiming that ‎Regeni’s death was “not an isolated incident” but part of a pattern of torture, death in ‎custody and forced disappearances in Egypt.

In a report submitted to the speaker of the House of Representatives, the delegation said it had held several meetings with different blocs within the EU parliament.

“We told them that the Egyptian parliament will do whatever it can to help solve the Regeni case and it is important for bodies such as the EU parliament to not issue resolutions based on false media reports,” said MP Ahmed Said, head of the delegation.

“We also tried to explain the complexity of Egypt’s internal politics and the challenges the country is facing.”

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