Libya, terrorism eclipse human rights issue in Egypt-France talks

Sunday 29/10/2017
Common concerns. French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ahead of talks at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on October 24. (AFP)

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.”