Macron refuses to link human rights to arms sales as Egypt’s leader visits

French president takes conciliatory, pro-regime line at briefing with Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi

French president Emmanuel Macron flip-flopped again regarding human rights in Egypt during the state visit to Paris of Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, which ends on Wednesday.

During the Egyptian dictator’s first visit to Paris in 2017, Macron was asked about Sisi’s deplorable human rights record. “I believe in the sovereignty of states,” Macron said. “I don’t lecture others.”

But when he visited Cairo in 2019, the French president was apparently influenced by a lunch with Egyptian human rights defenders. He called for the respect of individual rights and the rule of law, adding that “a dynamic, active, civil society remains the best rampart against extremism”.

During that trip, Macron said the release of two political prisoners – out of more than 60,000 – in the run-up to his visit was “not enough”. Sisi’s human rights record was even worse than Hosni Mubarak’s, he noted.


At their 2019 press conference in Cairo, Sisi retaliated for Macron’s criticism by expressing concern about what he portrayed as Macron’s violence against gilets jaunes protesters.

The Irish human rights group Frontline Defenders praised Macron's apparent change of heart at the time, saying his statements boosted morale among Egyptian human rights defenders.

But Macron reverted to his initial conciliatory, pro-regime line at a press conference with Sisi at the Élysée on Monday.

“I will not make these disagreements [over human rights] a condition of our defence and economic co-operation,” Macron said, standing beside Sisi. The French president vaunted “the sovereignty of peoples” and said that linking human rights to bilateral relations would be “ineffective on the subject of human rights and counterproductive in the struggle against terrorism”.

Macron did not speak out on behalf of Egyptians' right to free speech, though he reiterated the right of French media to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In his defence of French secularism, Macron evoked "the universalism of human rights, which are the basis of the United Nations charter".

In a bizarre dialogue of the deaf, Sisi, arch-enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood, portrayed himself as the defender of "religious values which are of heavenly origin and are thus sacred. They have supremacy over everything."

The French and Egyptian leaders apparently agreed to disagree about the legitimacy of the Muhammad cartoons, but Sisi reminded journalists that Egypt condemned the decapitation in October of Samuel Paty, the French history and geography teacher who had shown the cartoons in class.

In the run-up to Sisi's visit, 17 human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights, appealed to Macron to "put pressure" on Sisi to obtain the liberation of human rights defenders held in Egypt.

On December 3rd, the Élysée announced that three men from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights had been freed. They had been arrested in mid-November after meeting with foreign diplomats. One of them, Karim Ennarah, is married to Jess Kelly, a British film-maker who wrote about his arrest in the New York Times. As reported in this newspaper, the UN, France, Germany and at least two film stars campaigned for their release.

The liberation of the three men was portrayed by the Élysée as proof that its “quiet diplomacy” approach to human rights works.

‘Accomplice to repression’

Human rights groups held a protest in front of the French National assembly on Tuesday night to demand an end to French arms sales to Egypt. France risks being "an accomplice to repression", Antoine Madelin of the International Federation of Human Rights said.

Tens of millions of Egypt’s 100 million population live in poverty, but in recent years Cairo has purchased 24 French Rafale combat aircraft, a new generation frigate, two helicopter-carriers and four naval corvettes. Amnesty International reported that French-supplied armour was used against Egyptian civilians.

Teddy and Franklin D Roosevelt are variously credited with having said of a US-backed despot that he was "our sonofabitch". Macron might say the same of Sisi. The French leader's conflictual relationship with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be his main motivation for cosying up to Sisi.

Erdogan is now de facto leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi has suppressed in Egypt. France and Egypt are on the same side – against the Turkish-backed, UN-approved government – in the Libyan civil war. The Middle East has in effect divided into two blocs, with France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and the UAE in a cold war with Turkey, Iran and Qatar.

Egypt’s claim to help France fight terrorism is tenuous, since most attacks originate in France. Its ability to block African migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean is more credible.

From November 30th until December 6th, France and the UAE joined Medusa military exercises with Egypt, Greece and Cyprus for the first time.