Egypt, France wrangle over human rights but economic, security interests dwarf concerns
CAIRO - Human rights were a divisive issue in talks between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and French President Emmanuel Macron, who made his first visit to Egypt in late January.
The gap between the two leaders apparently emanated from different priorities. Macron talked about the freedoms bloggers, writers, journalists and political activists should be having. Sisi stressed that the priority was to save Egypt from terrorism, poverty and religious extremism.
Sisi said he did not want the French to apply their European standards to Egypt.
“The rights to life, security and development, including the obtainment of food, health care, education and appropriate housing are ones Egypt gives priority to,” Sisi said at a media briefing January 28.
Sisi said Egypt built thousands of flats for the most impoverished Egyptians, had prioritised screening and treatment of hepatitis C for millions of people and initiated nationwide development projects to create jobs.
He said the birth rate in Egypt stands at 2.5 million a year and 1 million new graduates enter the job market each year. “Egyptians need schools, hospitals, flats, roads and jobs,” Sisi said. “I want somebody to tell me how I can deal with all this.”
Macron sought to pursue a middle line in his criticism of Egypt’s human rights record, saying that, while he opposed Egypt’s jailing of bloggers and activists, “I respect the sovereignty of Egypt.”
“I never underestimate the challenges facing Egypt. I see huge efforts to establish respect for all creeds and religions,” Macron added.
Despite headlines focusing on human rights, Egypt and France deepened strategic, security and economic interests, observers said.
“Egypt and France face the same political and security threats,” said Akram Badr Eddine, a political science professor at Cairo University. “They coordinate on the fight against terrorism in the region.”
Libya, which shares an extended border with Egypt, is at the centre of this coordination. Egypt has been harmed by the unrest in Libya. France is seeking political reconciliation between warring factions in the North African country.
The Egyptian presidency confirmed that Sisi discussed Libya, terrorism and illegal immigration with Macron.
Egypt’s desire to modernise its military and diversify armaments has turned it into a major buyer of French weaponry. Cairo purchased billions of dollars of French arms, including 24 Rafale fighter jets, two Mistral class helicopter carriers and frigates, in the last four years.
The two countries agreed to the joint manufacture of corvettes in Alexandria, Egypt, part of an earlier transfer technology agreement. Cairo is seeking to purchase another 12 fighter jets from France, local media reported, although there was no official announcement of such discussions during Macron’s visit.
Before arriving in Cairo, Macron visited the ancient Abu Simbel temples in Aswan to mark 55 years since the relocation of the temples, an event that preceded construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River.
Macron toured the new administrative capital, a sprawling new city on the outskirts of Cairo that is expected to become Egypt’s centre of government and finance. He also met with Coptic Pope Tawadros II and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.
Macron announced an interfaith conference would be hosted by Paris but did not specify a date. “I am interested to hear from you about your concerns and fears,” Macron told Tawadros. “Europe is going through a big moral crisis. I believe that crisis can be resolved by a dialogue among religions.”
The administrative capital is one of several areas Egypt wants to attract French financial interest. French investments in Egypt exceed $5.7 billion and 160 French companies operate in the country. Trade volume between Egypt and France reached $2.3 billion last year.
An investment forum was organised on January 28 with around 40 deals, including memorandums of understanding, declarations of intent and contracts, signed before more than 300 French company representatives and a host of Egyptian and French officials.
Sisi and Macron earlier attended the signing of several agreements and memorandums of understanding in transportation, health care, culture, education and youth. Egypt also signed a memorandum of understanding worth $1.4 billion to begin a strategic partnership by 2023 with the French Development Agency.
Apart from being a huge market and an important investment magnet, Egypt is economically important to France because it will take over the presidency of the African Union in February, economists said.
“Egypt can be an important gateway for France into the African continent,” said Yumn al-Hamaqi, an economics professor at Cairo University. “Egypt is also badly in need of French investments.”