Rights take back seat to ‘priorities’ in Egyptian-European relations
France’s defense minister with her Egyptian counterpart during his visit to France early this month - Courtesy: Egypt’s Military spokesperson’s official Facebook page

Egyptian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Mohamed Zaki’s early July visit to Paris was cut short under pressure from French rights groups and the French media. The visit that was scheduled to be four days long was concluded after just two days, according to a well-informed Egyptian government source.

A French source refused to confirm the reason for this change of plans, saying that it is up to Zaki to adjust his schedule to accommodate his commitments. The source did, however, say that the visit “could have lasted a little longer.”

The French government was widely criticized in the weeks leading up to the visit for its provision of armaments to Egypt while overlooking Cairo’s human rights violations — a criticism that marred the Egyptian senior official’s visit. The visit was described by French media outlets as an effort to deepen the countries’ already solid armaments collaboration, which generously benefits the French economy. According to the Egyptian source, Cairo was dismayed by this coverage.

But the events that transpired during this brief visit did not adversely affect the improvements that the Egyptian-French relations have been seeing on all fronts, nor did the many human rights issues adversely affect Egypt’s relations with several prominent European actors, including the European Union (EU) itself. Egyptian diplomacy appears to be making notable progress in these relations by using regional developments, including in Libya, to its advantage and leveraging the needs of European countries for regional coordination on migration and security.

More arms deals with France in the pipeline

Zaki’s France visit took place days after French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian — who had been France’s defense minister for five years before he left that post in May 2017– visited Egypt and met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The Egyptian and the French sources both say that details of the bilateral cooperation in the armaments field were discussed at the extended Sisi-Le Drian meeting. According to the sources, the armaments cooperation has been holding steady since former President François Hollande’s tenure, during which Le Drian was in charge of making the deals with Egypt, a duty still within his purview.

Management of Egyptian-French relations on military cooperation is firmly grounded in the special relationship between Sisi and Le Drian, the established trust in Egypt’s ambassador to France, Ehab Badawy, and the direct relationships that the ambassador maintains, according to the sources.

The new arms deals that were discussed by Sisi and Le Drian included Egypt potentially procuring 24 more Rafale jets, the two sources say.

In an early July report, the French La Tribune newspaper quoted French sources as saying that the Rafale deal is likely to be concluded before the end of the year, with negotiations to be resumed during Zaki’s visit to France.

The French newspaper also quoted its sources as saying that the negotiations were only resumed after the US gave France the green light to export the jets to Egypt, as the US had previously banned the use of American-made parts in manufacturing the jets.

EgyptAir Flight MS804

The sources who spoke to Mada Masr add that the Sisi-Le Drian meeting and Zaki’s Paris talks covered other issues, including the fate of the Paris-Cairo EgyptAir aircraft that crashed three years ago and continues to be the subject of debate.

The families of the French victims are increasingly pressuring the Paris government to disclose the cause of the crash, the French source tells Mada Masr. While the families are relieved that the remains of their loved ones were finally repatriated after they had been retained by the Egyptian authorities for over a year and a half as part of the investigations, they are still uneasy about the slow progress of the collaboration between the two judicial systems, according to the source.

A high-profile French source notes that this issue is always present in any talks conducted between Egyptian and French officials, and that it is difficult to overlook.

However, any discord does not interrupt progress on other fronts, according to the source.

“This, or any other matter, is not enough to undermine the relationship between the two countries, which is built on compatible approaches on several issues — most notably the need to maintain stability in the region and block migration routes from the southern to the northern [banks] of the Mediterranean, in addition to the economic, military and cultural cooperation that always has been and will always be important to both countries,” the French source asserts.  

France-Egypt regional cooperation

Recent Cairo talks with Le Drian also included an open and constructive discussion of a number of regional issues, the sources add. These included the situation in Libya.

Le Drian was able to assuage Cairo’s concerns regarding French efforts to generate a collective political push for a presidential election to be held in Libya by the end of 2018, in coordination with UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé. These efforts were most public when President Emmanuel Macron chaired a May summit in the French capital that brought together United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Tobruk-based House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh, High Council of State head Khaled al-Mishri, and Libyan National Army (LNA) head Khalifa Haftar.

At the close of the summit, the parties issued a declaration, committing “to set the constitutional basis for elections and adopt the necessary electoral laws by September 16, 2018 and hold parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10, 2018.”

According to the sources, Le Drian assured Sisi that France is not seeking to dismiss the Egypt-led military unification talks and is open to an approach that may see Haftar as the leader of a potential national military force.

Meanwhile, Cairo seems more open to French efforts, as the sources portray, even if not completely on board with some of the details, which involve giving a direct role to Mishri, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya.

Le Drian’s visit also involved talks on the situation in Syria, guided by the diplomatic steps that France is taking to boost the efforts made by the UN’s special envoy to Syria under Staffan de Mistura and the talks France is conducting with all stakeholders, including the US and Russia.

The sources also report that Paris is not necessarily in agreement with Cairo on the critical role the latter believes Bashar al-Assad should have in shaping Syria’s future through the political process. That said, the current French administration adopts a less rigid stance than its predecessor toward collaborating with Assad as a potential partner to that end, at least in the short term. Describing Egypt’s internal affairs as a “sensitive” issue, the sources say that they were “somewhat present” at the Cairo talks between Le Drian and Sisi, but were not a source of tension.

The high-profile French source says that the human rights issue was raised during the discussions.  “However, the issue was and will continue to be deliberately removed” from official statements made by France or the EU, the source adds, because “France is aware of how big a role Egypt is playing in combating terrorism and does not want to embarrass a friendly regime.”

A report on France’s weapons sales to the Sisi regime, compiled by four research and rights centers, was released in early July and details how French-bought weapons are used in human rights violations in Egypt.

Titled “Repression Made in France,” the report touches on the volume of French armament sales to Egypt, the types of weapons exported and the legality of these sales under French and European laws. It also includes a view of Egypt’s record of human rights violations, which the weapons detailed in the sale may have been used for.

A fact sheet titled “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2017” was released in March by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The source of 37 percent of Egypt’s arms imports, France has become the North African country’s main supplier, replacing the US, which had held that position steadily since the 1970s, according to SIPRI.

More challenging relations with Germany

The rights issue was more visible at the talks that were conducted in Germany in July — at the same time as Zaki was in France — between Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry and German officials and legislators. A German source who spoke to Mada Masr says that Shoukry listened to and received a lot of detailed questions on the human rights situation in Egypt and the fate of political prisoners, as well as questions regarding Egypt’s civil society.

According to the German source, although the talks with Shoukry involved discussions of armaments and military deals between the two governments, in which Berlin appeared to be budging off its rigid stance against making more weapons deals with Cairo, German officials also expressed serious reservations about the choices made by the Egyptian regime in connection with political freedoms and the democratic process. Some German legislators even refused to accept Shoukry’s arguments regarding the situation with respect to the “war on terror.”

For the German source who spoke to Mada Masr, the Bundestag is unlikely to compromise its position against selling sensitive surveillance technology to Cairo anytime soon, for fear that the Egyptian government may use the technology to track political dissidents, despite Shoukry’s proposals for lucrative bilateral economic cooperation and his reiteration of the important and “significant [role] that Egypt has successfully been able to play in regards to the sensitive issue of immigration.”

The German source adds that the Germans’ concern over the situation in Egypt cannot be repudiated or denied, as the fate of several people of importance remains “unknown” in a context of “political ambiguity.”

“We are no longer talking about activists or Islamist dissidents, not at all. [We are talking] about whoever is perceived as potentially opposing the regime,” the source says.

But Shoukry also brought a welcome piece of news with him on his Berlin visit, the German source says. The foreign minister informed Germany that the legal procedures were in their final stages for German NGOs to resume working in Egypt and for all issues with their employees, who faced claims of interfering with Egyptian internal affairs in the post-2011 revolution months, to be settled.

Development on this front may contribute to an overall improvement in bilateral relations, the German source suggests, especially in view of the role that Egypt plays in the “illegal” immigration issue. However, such an improvement is unlikely to involve an about turn on the issue of the sensitive technology deals.

Regeni case not an impediment to Italy’s interests

But Egypt is importing from Italy what Germany refuses to supply, according to an Egyptian source. The source adds that Italy had long been inactive as a technology exporter to Egypt “while there was heightened tension over the [Giulio] Regeni case,” but the case is fading into the background as an ever increasing number of new deals emerge and cooperation grows in several different fields, including the energy sector.

According to the Egyptian source, since the Italian ambassador returned to Cairo last year after he was recalled over the stalled investigations into Regeni’s February 2016 murder, Italy has been seeking to make up for lost opportunities by seizing its share of the economic pie and solidifying its sway in regional politics, especially with respect to Libya and cooperation on fighting “illegal” immigration.

However, an Italian source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that while the Italian government is keen to reinstate close collaboration with Egypt in some areas, “this does not mean that it will be able to completely let the [Regeni] case pass just like that, because the family and the media are constantly raising the issue.” Their advocacy efforts have an impact that cannot be disregarded, according to the Italian source, despite lobbying from significant figures in Italy’s political circles, who argue that the country’s top priority should be ensuring their role in shaping the Libyan situation and Egyptian-Italian cooperation “in the fight against illegal migration.”

Communications between Egyptian and Italian prosecutors working on the case have seen progress of late, according to a Cairo-based Italian source. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source says that a meeting between both sides is expected to take place in “late September or early October.”

While the source expresses doubt that the meeting will result in and conclusive findings, it is anticipated that prosecutors will issue a statement reaffirming to the researcher’s family that “the government is still on the case.”

Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini met with Sisi in Cairo on July 18, in what was his first visit to Egypt since assuming his position at the start of June. The meeting, which was also attended by Egyptian Interior Minister Mahmoud Tawfik and General Intelligence Service Director Abbas Kamel, was described by Italy’s Interior Ministry as “long and cordial.”

At the close of the talks, Salvini took to his personal Twitter account to provide details of what was discussed in the presidential palace in Cairo. “Clarity and justice have been promised” in the murder of Regeni, according to the Italian interior minister, and the two countries will cooperate on counterterrorism, irregular migration and the stabilization of Libya. Salvini also stated that he extended an invitation to Egyptian representatives to a conference on irregular migration and counterterrorism that will be held in Italy in the fall, and that Cairo and Rome will share information on Islamist militants returning to Italian shores on migrant boats.

The office of Egypt’s presidency struck similar notes in the press release it issued outlining the meeting’s outcomes. Presidential spokesperson Bassem Rady stated that Sisi “underlined the strong will and desire to achieve final results in the investigation into the murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni.” According to the spokesperson, the meeting also saw Sisi and Salvini discuss irregular migration and the Libyan file, where both sides agreed on the need to “rebuild state institutions, primarily the national armed forces, parliament and government, maintain the Skhirat Agreement and support the efforts of the United Nations Envoy.”

However, a high-ranking Italian diplomat in Rome who is familiar with the country’s foreign bureau and spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that discussions around Regeni would have only played a marginal role, whereas Salvini would have placed far greater importance on extending Cairo’s assistance in addressing irregular migration from Libya.

Salvini had been critical of the Italian government’s handling of the Regeni case while he was the federal secretary of the Northern League, the right wing populist political party, telling the Italian government to “grow a pair” in dealing with the Egyptian authorities.

“It is only because of his new institutional role that Salvini asked Sisi to jointly renew the effort to shed light on the most controversial murder case in recent Italian history,” the source tells Mada Masr shortly after the close of the meeting.

Days before the Salvini-Sisi meeting, Regeni’s parents were received by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi and House Speaker Roberto Fico, all of whom reaffirmed their their confidence that the truth will be uncovered.

Cairo’s role in European border security is of larger concern for Salvini, however, according to the Italian diplomat.

“The recent images of migrants squeezed into boats leaving from Libya should raise flags for the Italian government,” the source says. “All the smaller boats that leave from Libya, shipping migrants toward Europe, are likely acquired from Egypt or Tunisia,” adds the source, as the EU limited sales of inflatable boats and barges to Libya in 2017.

According to the source, it is not unlikely that Salvini asked Sisi to implement stricter control over the selling of barges and rubber boats to Libya.

Irregular migration across the Mediterranean is especially important for Salvini. The Northern League’s relentless anti-immigration campaign won the trust of millions of disillusioned Italians, leading to an unprecedented rise in the party’s popularity in the March 2018 national elections and bringing Salvini into office.

The interior minister has threatened to close access to Italian ports to NGO-chartered rescue ships, which he regularly has accused of collusion with human traffickers, while, at the same time, reiterating his intention to turn back migrants when they are still in open waters.

On July 17, Salvini harshly criticized the Spanish non-profit organization Proactiva Open Arms, which transported a group of migrants to the port of Barcelona after Italy refused to grant them entry. On his twitter account, the minister declared that Proactiva “will only see Italian ports on postcards.”

Earlier this year, Frontex Mediterranean, the European border and coast guard agency, launched Thermis, a new border security operation to replace Triton that expanded the range of actions and responsibilities that Italy and other participants are called upon to carry out in the Mediterranean. Themis’s objective is not limited to the central Mediterranean or to countering irregular migration, but it aims to prevent the smuggling of people and drugs on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea and to intercept members of militant groups who want to reach Italian shores on small boats.

“Triton said that whomever [is] rescued would be taken to Italy,” Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for Frontex told Reuters. “Themis leaves the decision on disembarkation to the (country) coordinating a particular rescue.”

Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri stated that Themis focuses on capacity building as a cornerstone of the program. “We must increase our training capabilities to prevent criminal groups from worming their way into the European Union. This is absolutely essential for the Union’s security system,” he said.

Cooperation with Egypt on security matters has therefore become invaluable for Italy, especially as, under the parameters introduced by Themis, Italian ships that take part in the operation will not patrol further than 24 miles off the coast of Italy, where Triton’s operational area extended about 30 miles from the Italian coast.

Earlier this month, a delegation of high-ranking officials from Egypt took part in a study visit organized in Italy by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC). According to the press release, the visit aimed at “providing the participants with insight into the Italian institutional responses to the smuggling of migrants and enhancing cooperation between Italy and Egypt to counter this crime.”

In the past year, tensions between Italy and France have escalated due to tensions over their respective foreign policies toward Libya. In June 2017, Rome protested the La Celle-Saint-Cloud meeting that produced the fleeting Paris agreement, taking issue with the fact that Italy had neither been invited nor consulted.

While Italy has criticized what it perceives as French unilateral policy in Libya, it has unconditionally supported the GNA and refused to reconsider its position vis-à-vis Haftar, limiting its own ability to develop an all-inclusive approach.

Now, differences in opinion as to whether elections should be held in the country are at the heart of discord on the Libyan issue. While France is pushing all Libyan parties to adhere to the promise they made in May to hold elections at the end of this year, the Italian government prefers to see elections delayed, due to the lack of security guarantees. Migration issues are also bolstering further tensions, as France still refuses to accept migrants.

Pre-revolution relations with the EU

As for the EU, a source tells Mada Masr that the fight against “illegal” immigration comes before the human rights issues on the EU’s list of interests in dealings with Egypt.

“This is simply the priority for member states at the moment,” the EU source says, adding that the overall relations are returning to their pre-2011 state. Nobody views Egypt as a young democracy anymore, the source says. Rather, it is a state ruled by a powerful authoritarian regime that secures its borders and maintains strong economic relations with the EU and with several member states.

Nevertheless, “this has shifted over the past few months,” a high-profile European source based in Cairo tells Mada Masr. As more focus and concern is directed toward the regime’s oppressive practices, the source says that there is a waning interest on Egypt’s part in upholding the most basic fundamentals of human rights, “and the political ambiguity intensifying to an extent that is undeniable even by states that have been accustomed to repudiating the deterioration of the rights situation in Egypt for [the sake of] their direct economic interests.”

Even in view of this change, EU states did not show more than the bare minimum of interest in the human rights issue. They released a statement in late June through the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, expressing grave concern over the continued deterioration of the human rights situation in Egypt and calling on the Egyptian government to honor its promises to preserve the means of democratic transition.

According to a Cairo-based diplomat whose country is member of the UN human Rights Council, Norway, France and Belgium all condemned the infringements on democratic freedoms being carried out in the name of counterterrorism, calling on the government to respect freedom of speech and safeguard civil society in Egypt.

Although they made no mention of terrorism, the source says that Denmark and the UK both called on the government to make greater efforts to preserve Egyptians’ constitutional rights, while the Netherlands and Sweden made no additional comments to the EU’s statement.

*Note: This piece was edited on August 1 to include additional comments on the Regeni case.

Asmahan Soliman 
Leonardo Giansanti 

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