Business and politics mix in Hollande’s Mideast tour
Beirut - French President François Hollande’s three-nation Middle East tour was jam-packed.
Besides listening to leaders of Lebanon and Jordan discuss the issues created by each hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Hollande received an earful of genuine concern in Egypt over the severe deterioration of conditions in the Middle East.
Hollande’s hosts spoke of the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace talks; Lebanon remaining without a president for two years; civil war and sectarian strife ripping apart Syria and Iraq; the threat of Islamic State (ISIS) militants; and an emerging Saudi-led Sunni Muslim alliance to counter the influence of rival Shia Iran.
Despite a full schedule spread over four days, Hollande also spent time on business, having been accompanied by 85 top French investors from sectors ranging from water treatment to aviation.
Hollande’s first stop was April 16th in Lebanon, where he promised financial and military support to the tiny country, which has been without a president since May 2014 and is reeling under the burden of hosting so many Syrian refugees. His pledge to provide $56.5 million in 2016, another $113 million in 2017-19 to help Lebanon cope with the refugee crisis and an additional unspecified amount to “combat terrorism and confront other threats” was far below Lebanese expectations.
Another disappointment for the Lebanese was Hollande’s guarded approach towards the country’s political crisis. Many had hoped France, Lebanon’s traditional mentor, would help break the country’s political deadlock and presidential vacuum.
Hollande, though, took a hands-off approach, simply urging Lebanese politicians to elect a president soon, saying it was in the interests of the nation and region to ensure the post was filled. “The answer to that is not in my hands. It is up to you to,” he said.
Political analyst Amine Kammourieh lamented Hollande’s comments. “He threw the ball again in the Lebanese court, as if he doesn’t know already that the Lebanese haven’t been able to agree among themselves on this issue for the past two years,” Kammourieh said.
“It is clear that France is no more the main player in Lebanon,” he said.
Hollande made a swift tour of a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Bekaa valley to acquaint himself first-hand with the humanitarian tragedy. He was ushered in by 600 refugees, mostly women and children.
Despite the warmth exhibited by his Lebanese hosts, Hollande’s visit was “empty” with “no substance” for Lebanon, political analyst Sami Nader said.
“The visit reflected Europe’s main concern: the refugee problem,” Kammourieh said. “They would do everything to keep the refugees where they are, away from Europe.”
Hollande’s second stop, in Egypt, came hard on the heels of the formation of a unity government in Libya, where Europe needs Egypt the most.
Egypt threw its lot behind the government that rules in the eastern city of Tobruk. But now, a Europe scared of ISIS in Libya wants Cairo to back the unity government.
“This is particularly true in the light of reports that ISIS has plans to carry out attacks on tourist sites in some European countries,” Egyptian analyst Saad al-Zunt said. “Egypt can do a lot to stabilise Libya and it does.”
The business factor appeared to dominate Hollande’s agenda in talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ordered 24 of France’s sophisticated Rafale fighter jets in a 2015 deal valued at $5.9 billion.
Egypt and France signed several agreements, including a $1.4 billion deal to expand the metro system in Cairo.
France has total investment in Egypt worth about $5.7 billion and the 150 French companies working in Egypt employ 33,000 Egyptians. Trade between the countries totalled $2.8 billion in 2015, making France Egypt’s sixth largest trading partner.
Egypt started diversifying its weaponry purchases after its relations with the United States soured because of the army’s overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in mid-2013.
“The military side of talks between Egypt and France is important because it shows that nobody can monopolise the arming of our military,” said Amr Hassanein, a member of the Egyptian-European Business Council. “These talks also show that we are open to everybody.”
In Jordan, Hollande said he wanted France to be among the top three investors in the kingdom.
“France is currently the sixth largest investor in Jordan but this spot is not good enough for us,” he told the French-Jordanian Economic Forum, a body that includes investors from both sides.
“In football, only the top three teams get honoured,” he said. “We want to move up the ladder.”
Hollande said his visit to Jordan carried two messages: one to his business people to invest in the kingdom and the second to French tourists to visit a stable Middle East country with abundant historic and biblical attractions.
He also announced that France would step up financial support to Jordan by extending $1.1 billion in cheap loans in 2017-19, part of which will support the state budget.