Libya, terrorism eclipse human rights issue in Egypt-France talks
Cairo- Human rights featured — although not prominently — in the first official meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Paris.
The talks, which took place October 24 amid calls from international rights groups for Macron to make human rights a prime issue in discussions with Sisi, instead had the French president focusing on terrorism and regional threats.
Macron stated that it was not up to him to “lecture” Egypt on civil liberties. “I believe in the sovereignty of states and, therefore, just as I don’t accept being lectured on how to govern my country, I don’t lecture others,” he said during a news conference after his talks with Sisi at the Élysée Palace.
Macron was keen to emphasise the “common battle” against terrorism. “France stands by Egypt because the security of this country is also our security,” he said.
This common commitment was clear to see in multimillion-dollar arms deals signed in 2015 for France to provide Cairo with 24 Rafale fighter jets, a multi-mission frigate and two Mistral warships. There were reports that Cairo could order more jets, given its escalating fight against terrorism in the country.
“In doing this, Egypt wanted to modernise its military and diversify the sources of its armaments,” said Gamal Bayoumi, a former head of the Egyptian-European Partnership Programme at the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation.
He acknowledged that Paris’s reluctance to confront Sisi over Egypt’s human rights record could stem from financial considerations. “Money coming from these [arms] sales partially perked up the French economy and got the machinery at French arms factories running again,” Bayoumi said.
Human Rights Watch slammed France’s “indulgence” towards alleged human rights abuses in Egypt.
Macron stressed that relations between France and Egypt should not stop at military cooperation and signalled France’s desire to expand cultural and educational cooperation with Cairo. Sisi declared that 2019 would be the year of French culture and tourism in Egypt.
Most of the discussions between the two leaders focused on Libya, where Cairo and Paris back opposing sides in the ongoing conflict.
Paris was the venue of a ceasefire deal between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which controls most of eastern Libya, and the UN-backed government of Fayez al-Sarraj in late July. However, the deal has yet to be put into effect. Paris apparently believes Sisi’s government can influence its ally Haftar.
“France thinks Egypt backs one side in the Libyan conflict against another, namely Haftar against Sarraj, which is totally untrue,” said Ahmed al-Qousi, a former Egyptian assistant foreign minister. “Egypt has been trying to bring Libyan rivals together, knowing that only a political solution will bring the conflict in Libya to an end.”
Sisi expressed a similar view in an interview with France 24. “We have sought to encourage both sides to reach common ground in Libya,” he said.
Paris is banking on Cairo’s influence with Haftar to activate the agreement.
“Haftar’s control of eastern Libya forms a necessary buffer against violence seeping out of his country and into Egypt,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of local think-tank Strategic Studies Centre.
However, with arms and militants being smuggled into Egypt via Libya and signs that recent terrorist attacks in Egypt can be traced to Libya, Cairo is losing patience with the chaotic situation next door.
“We have borders with Libya that amount to 1,200km and, until now and over the past three years, we have destroyed more than 1,200 cars carrying weaponry and militants,” Sisi told France 24.
He said that no country could completely safeguard the border and called for greater international efforts to combat terrorism. “We all have to move together, not just Egypt and France, but all the countries of the world… because it [terrorism] is the real challenge for humanity and global security and stability,” Sisi said.
The unrest in Libya has allowed it to become a major transition point for immigrants and refugees trying to get to Europe. Security analysts warned that terrorist groups were using the route from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy to infiltrate Europe.
“Illegal immigration is a huge concern for the Europeans,” Qousi said. “Egypt is a major player in the southern Mediterranean region and it can do a lot to put the lid on this phenomenon. This is why Europe, in general, and France, in particular, are pressing it to play a role in this regard.”