Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1299, (9 - 15 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

France-Egypt relations

The close relationship between France and Egypt is based on mutual respect as well as careful strategic thinking, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Al-Ahram Weekly

Paris and Cairo are developing a strategic partnership, and things are going well. France is becoming a top supplier for the Egyptian army – the recent military satellite deal is only the latest in a long series – and the country has supplied Egypt with fighter aircraft, naval vessels, aerial defence systems and other equipment. French exports to Egypt, not including the military sector, have also reached an historical peak, and France is the sixth or seventh largest foreign investor in Egypt.

The relations between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and French president François Hollande are excellent. They are fond of each other despite the absence of a common language, and their working relationship is smooth. This strong personal relationship has played a major role in overcoming many bureaucratic hurdles. Egypt wanted 24 Rafale fighter aircraft from France urgently, for example, and the first of them were delivered quickly despite queries about the schedule.

However, these personal relations are not the sole explanation for the strategic partnership between France and Egypt. France’s support for Egypt has deep causes, since it is clear that a state of collapse in the Middle East would mean many more unwanted migrants in Europe. It seems equally clear that an Islamist comeback in Egypt, or a deterioration that could lead to a failed state in the country, would trigger such a massive migration. Europe cannot afford to see millions of Egyptians fleeing their country, so it has a vested interest in turning Egypt into a success story. The naiveté of some non-Mediterranean European powers stuns French officials, as these powers seem oblivious to the strategic threat of failed states in the region.

Of course, the two countries are well aware of the terrorist threats and the dangers of radicalisation in the region, and though they share a common interest in stabilising Libya both are wary of an intervention on the ground. They fear overstretching their forces should they do so, and any such intervention would entail an obligation towards state-building, which is never an easy task. Nevertheless, the possibility of a Daesh, or Islamic State (IS) group, emirate in Libya could lead them to change their minds. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s negative assessment of Muslim Brotherhood ideology has not gone unnoticed either, and it has pleased the Egyptian authorities.

French officials also support Egypt because they believe it rests on solid foundations, being an old and established nation state with powerful institutions, an ancient culture, influential middle classes and soft power potential. Egypt also has comparative advantages, as the outlook for many other states in the Middle East is either unknown or grim. Some of these states have collapsed, others are seeing, or could be seeing, a risky transition, and still others are unreliable. The few stable ones do not have powerful armies.

There are snags, however, in France’s support for Egypt. Some in the French foreign policy community have strong reservations about this policy. Some previously advocated a bet on the Muslim Brotherhood group and are unhappy as things did not go as they expected. Others are worried by Egypt’s human rights record, which they say does not prove that the regime rests on solid ground or indicates that it has numerous foes. Others still think it may be impossible to sort out Egypt’s economic problems and/or believe the Egyptian government is not trying to do so.

Much of the French media and many in French Middle East studies circles are hostile to the Al-Sisi regime, and some recent developments, such as that of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, killed in Egypt earlier this year, have not helped. French officials do not dismiss the human rights narrative, however. They say developing a friendship and a partnership with Egypt is the best way to secure leverage, and though they think human rights are important they do not think they should be the cornerstone of policy.

Nevertheless, the question that is really hanging over much French thinking refers to next year’s presidential elections in France. If President Hollande is not re-elected, what will be the next president’s Egypt policy, many ask.

The writer is a professor of  International Relations of  the College de France and visiting professor at Cairo University.

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