To honour the Egyptian president, and presumably reward the authoritarian ruler of the Arab world’s most populous land for being a loyal customer of the French arms industry, France’s President Emmannuel Macron gifted him with the country’s highest award, the Legion d'Honneur, a medal established by Napoleon Bonaparte 218 years ago.
Yet there was no announcement about the conferring of the honour by the Paris government, and no French correspondents were invited to cover the ceremony, as well as other events during Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s elaborate state visit to France, which snarled traffic throughout the capital for days. The French media outlets that sought footage of the events were forced to resort to state media in Egypt, among the countries in the world with the highest levels of censorship.
“Definitely [the French officials] are embarrassed; that’s why there are no cameras,” said Ziad Majed, a professor of political science at the American University of Paris. “They wanted to do it without promoting the event itself or the visit.”
The debacle over French official attempts to keep Mr Sisi’s visit under the radar underscores the tangled nature of an unseemly embrace; one between the nation that presents itself as a paragon of human rights and liberty and an Arab state that has emerged as one of the most brutal and repressive regimes on the planet, with a worsening human rights record and prisons filled with dissidents.
In recent weeks, the government in Cairo arrested three employees of one of the country’s few remaining human rights organisations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, prompting a global outcry. The three men were released on bail but still face vague national security charges. On Thursday, Italian prosecutors charged four of Mr Sisi’s enforcers in the 2016 Cairo kidnapping and murder of doctoral student Giulio Regeni.
“Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, Egypt has been experiencing its worst human rights crisis in many decades,” the advocacy group Human Rights Watch states.
Nevertheless, Mr Macron has insisted that he would bring no pressure on Egypt over a track record that includes enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, atrocious prison conditions, and mass trials.
“I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights],” he was quoted as saying as Mr Sisi’s visit began. “It is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism.”
Paris and Cairo are drawn together over shared strategic concerns. Both oppose what they describe as violent Islamic extremism. But there are also more mundane concerns. France profits from weapons sales to Egypt, and during his visit Mr Sisi met with both the leaders of Airbus and Dassault Aviation, which sells Cairo Rafale advanced fighter jets.
Mr Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 coup and has rigged elections since then to win with more than 95 per cent of the vote, savours the legitimacy conferred on him by France’s Elysee Palace. Egyptian television channels and social media networks were filled with photos and footage of Mr Sisi meeting with high-level French political and corporate elites, often presented with the president at the centre of the photo, surrounded by French officials seemingly paying him tribute.
“There has been a constant trend of quite clear cynicism, being cast as rough pragmatism, for years,” said Dr HA Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “The underlying calculus is quite clear – the Elysee has priorities in the region, and those priorities may include human rights protections within a long list, but not at the top of that long list, irrespective of the Elysee’s declared support for human rights.”
France may need Egypt more than the other way around. As Paris’s global diplomatic clout, military power and economic impact slips, it needs allies like Egypt to project power and influence. Egypt has been a force in confronting the ambitions of Turkey, which Paris has identified as a major problematic nation whose threats to French interests exceed even that of Russia or China.
Egypt also helps France, a fading colonial power, maintain influence in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean and even Sudan.
Despite rumblings of discontent within the French establishment, France’s political elite has long been seduced by the notion that Arab rulers like Mr Sisi can stabilise the Middle East and combat radicalism.
The danger is that the French embrace could be counterproductive, giving rhetorical ammunition to extremist groups seeking to recruit disaffected young Muslims in both the Middle East and Europe.
“They didn’t even pretend that they raised the issues of human rights, democracy or political prisoners,” said Mr Majed.
“France plays a role in normalising the brutal suppression of the Sisi regime,” he said. “When you want to send a message of combatting extremism, the worst message that could be sent is accepting impunity and dealing with this regime without any conditions. It’s a way of saying, we accept double standards and the violations of human rights. This is the perfect condition for all sorts of radicalism.”
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