Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1428, (31 January - 6 February 2019)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1428, (31 January - 6 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Divergent views on human rights

A press conference dominated by accusations of human rights violations was a notable feature of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Egypt, writes Reem Leila


Al-Sisi and Macron during the press conference in Cairo on Monday
Al-Sisi and Macron during the press conference in Cairo on Monday

Accompanied by his wife, French President Emmanuel Macron spent three days in Egypt, his first visit to the country since being elected president. In addition to meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and holding a joint press conference Macron visited a number of historic sites, met with intellectuals and witnessed the signing of several important agreements.

Macron’s trip began on Sunday with a visit to Abu Simbel Temple. The following day he headed to Cairo and met with President Al-Sisi who accompanied Macron on a tour of the Arts and Culture District of the New Administrative Capital (NAC).

Regional crises, human rights and economic cooperation between Egypt and France were all discussed by the two leaders. In addition, dozens of agreements covering transport, renewable energy, health, agriculture and the food and automobile industries were signed.

Macron’s delegation included 50 company heads and five ministers. During the visit several memoranda of understanding (MoUs) were signed, covering social and economic development from 2019-2023, a €6 million loan to support the social security sector and a €50 million loan for projects empowering women. A finance agreement for the fourth phase of the Cairo-Heliopolis metro line, worth €336 million, was also initiated.

The two presidents held closed discussions followed by a joint press conference during which Macron was critical of Egypt’s human rights record.

“Stability and durable peace go hand in hand with respect for individual dignity and the rule of law. The search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights,” he said.

“Things haven’t gone in the right direction since 2017. Bloggers and journalists are in prison and because of this Egypt’s image is suffering.”

Al-Sisi responded by saying human rights in Egypt cannot be divorced from the turbulence the region finds itself in and the battle against terrorism.

“We are not like Europe or the United States. We are a country that has its own characteristics, in a region that has the same,” said Al-Sisi.

“Egypt will not progress through blogging. It will advance through the work, effort and perseverance of its sons.”

Reuters reported that eight human rights groups had urged Macron to deliver a strong message on rights during his trip, demanding that “unjustly detained” prisoners be freed and any arms sales that could be used in rights violations be suspended.

Al-Sisi denied allegations that Egyptian police use disproportionate force against unarmed demonstrators.

“Protesting is a right guaranteed by the constitution,” said the president. He said no armoured vehicles had been used against protests since 2011. “All we ask people is that people protest within the law,” said Al-Sisi, a reference to Egypt’s 2013 protest law. 

Al-Sisi stressed that Egypt was in the process of providing housing for 250,000 people currently living in slums. “Isn’t this effort an example of Egypt implementing human rights standards from a different perspective than the one you see?” he asked.

“We do not want to confine human rights in Egypt to issues of freedom of expression. People’s opinions are one thing, but the destruction of the state is another. You should not view us from a European perspective… just as we do not look at you from an Egyptian perspective… that would not be fair.”

President Al-Sisi argued human rights are indivisible and in Egypt cannot be restricted to freedom of opinion. He said civil society organisations have an important role to play, especially in light of the difficult circumstances Egypt is facing.

“We are working to promote the values ​​of citizenship, coexistence and brotherhood,” said Al-Sisi.

Asked about the ongoing yellow vest protests in France which have led to the death of 11 people since demonstrations started in November, Macron said: “Protesters have every freedom to express their opinions. This is democracy, and such freedom is guaranteed by the constitution.” He added that he had been saddened by the deaths of French citizens during the protests but insisted they were not the result of police actions.

Commenting on the press conference, Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), said neither of the two presidents seemed at ease.

“President Al-Sisi rightly saw Macron’s statements as an attempt to lecture him on the human rights portfolio,” while Macron was responding to pressure from French and international human rights organisations which had pressed him ahead of his visit to raise the issue with Al-Sisi.

Abu Seada does not think the relationship between the two presidents will be unduly affected by the press conference. The strategic partnership between France and Egypt is strong, and Paris will continue to see Cairo as an important regional player that is promoting stability and security in the region, especially in Libya.

Later on the same day Al-Sisi and Macron participated in an economic forum where both delivered speeches. The forum was organised by the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Egypt and brought together Egyptian and French ministers and businessmen. During the forum Al-Sisi called on French companies to increase their investments and participate in building a modern Egypt by transferring technology and expertise.

No details emerged about future military contracts during Macron’s trip though the two countries are discussing Egypt’s possible purchase of an additional 12 Rafale fighter jets.

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