French President Francois Hollande is due to arrive in Cairo on Sunday for a two-day visit that is expected to include the signing of more arms deals between the two nations.
The upcoming visit has raised questions, however, about the development of bilateral relations in light of rising international criticism of Egypt’s human rights record, particularly in Europe.
France’s position on Egypt changed in just a few months from a hesitancy to acknowledge the post-June 30 government that brought President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power and the condemning of violence, to its positioning as a key economic and military ally.
Egypt has so far acquired from France: 24 Rafale warplanes supplied by Dassault Aviation for 5.6 billion euros, as well as FREMM multi-mission Frigates (warships), supplied by DCNS (a French industrial group specializing in naval defence and energy) — the contract for both was concluded in February 2015 and the warplanes delivered in July 2015; the two countries also concluded a 950 million euro contract for two Mistral warships in October 2015, and obtained four Corvettes (small warships) — also supplied by DCNS — for 1 billion euros, for which the contract was signed in June 2014.
According to French newspaper La Tribune, Hollande is expected to make a deal with Egypt for a military telecommunications satellite worth 600 million euros during his visit, as well as to engage in talks on the supply of additional warships and Falcon aircraft.
A French military source, speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, explains that Egypt is keen on diversifying its arms suppliers, in order to counter the perception that Russia is replacing the US as Egypt’s main military supplier. “Egypt also needs French technology, especially in relation to satellites,” the source explains.
Fighting terrorism became a priority both nations shared to a greater extent following the November attacks last year, which claimed 130 lives in Paris. The attacks consolidated French foreign policy in the region, with priority given to besieging networks of foreign militants in Syria, according to Romain Nadal, the official spokesperson and head of the communications department for the French Foreign Ministry, who spoke to Mada Masr late last year.
“Achieving this calls for collaboration between all states in Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Of course, we have reservations towards policies of several states, but facing terrorism now requires a wide range of collaboration and coordination in several fields,” Nadal added.
“As far as we are concerned, the Egyptian regime is our ally,” Nadal asserted. “Of course we make our comments regarding human rights issues in Egypt, but at the end we do not look upon president Sisi as we do Bashar al-Assad. We see a regime that is fighting terrorism and we have to protect it. In short, we do not want to see Egypt face the same fate as Libya, Syria and Iraq. Egypt is a big country and its fall will result in deterioration of the situation in all of the Middle East.”
Egypt has a particularly key role for France regarding Libya, according to an academic who also spoke anonymously to Mada Masr. Both countries are aligned on supporting General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Armed Forces loyal to the internationally-backed government that is fighting the Islamist General National Congress in an ongoing civil war.
“It is not a secret that France is supporting Haftar, at least through intelligence work,” the academic source added.
Echoing these thoughts, the French military source said, “Egypt is the number one key to resolving the Libya crisis and it is an important player in Syria too. A country like France also doesn’t have the resources to send troops abroad and public opinion won’t accept a foreign military presence in crisis zones.”
Pierre Razoux, head of the Arab Office at the Institute of Strategic Research at Ecole Militaire, told Mada Masr, “It is of course in our interests to support Egypt in its attempts to secure its Western borders with Libya to stop the streaming of fighters and weapons there, as well as securing the naval route of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Mandab Strait to protect our international trade with exporting states in Asia, not to mention protection of oil production and export sources.”
But security deals have not entirely masked French concerns over Egypt’s human rights record. The recent torture to death of Italian researcher Guilio Regeni in obscure circumstances in Cairo and the reopening of the controversial 2011 case against human rights defenders, accusing them of receiving foreign funding, are spurring stronger international criticism of Egypt.
On the eve of Hollande’s visit to Cairo, two of his advisors met with representatives of local and international human right organizations to enquire about the situation in Egypt. According to a statement by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, whose head, Bahey Eddin Hassan, was at the meeting, attendees called on Hollande to raise human rights issues during his trip.
They specifically raised the case of Eric Lang, a French citizen killed in custody in Cairo in 2013, asserting that if France had taken up his death the way the Italian government is dealing with Regeni’s, many Egyptians lives could potentially have been spared.
With Lang’s family recently complaining about the case being forgotten, Le Monde on Saturday wrote that the investigation into his death would be on Hollande’s agenda in Cairo.
In March, French Ambassador for Human Rights Patrizianna Sparacino-Thiellay visited Egypt and engaged in several meetings with state officials and civil society representatives. Razoux indicated that there were disagreements among French officials concerning Egypt and whether France should support Sisi’s government, adding, “until now, [support] is the prevalent tendency.”
The French military source explains that, while French public opinion might not be too sympathetic towards Islamists in Egypt, they are more likely to be in solidarity with human rights organizations and a novelist like Ahmad Naji, who was recently sentenced to two years in prison for harming public morality. He attributed this to a common influence by Egyptian intellectuals and writers, such as novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who is well known in Paris and spoke against the Brotherhood when Mohamed Morsi was ousted, and is currently raising the matter of human rights violations.
A French diplomat adds, while France has important observations on the human rights record of Egypt today, it prefers to voice its opinion in the context of “good relations and amicability between the two countries and not in a confrontational way.”