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Egypt: France slammed by rights group over $4.8bn deal to sell fighter jets to Cairo

Deal encourages 'ruthless repression' under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, says Human Rights Watch
Macron was criticised by human rights groups for inviting Sisi to France in December despite the widely documented repression of political opposition in Egypt (AFP)

France's decision to sell 30 Rafale fighter jets to Egypt has been condemned by Human Rights Watch (HRW) for "encouraging ruthless repression" under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

France said on Tuesday it will begin delivering the Dassault-made planes to Egypt from 2024 in a 4bn euro ($4.8bn) deal.

Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said the deal illustrated the "strategic nature of the partnership" between the countries and would secure 7,000 jobs in France over three years.

"Our two countries are resolutely committed to the fight against terrorism and work for stability," she said.

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French President Emmanuel Macron said in December he would not make the sale of weapons to Egypt conditional on human rights because he did not want to weaken Cairo's ability to counter terrorism in the region, a comment that drew the ire of critics.

Macron, who made the comments during a visit to Paris by Sisi, was criticised by human rights groups for inviting the Egyptian president to France despite the widely documented repression of political opposition in Egypt.

Citing confidential documents, the investigative website Disclose said on Monday that an agreement had been concluded at the end of April and a deal, which it estimated was worth 3.75bn euro ($4.5bn), could be sealed on Tuesday when an Egyptian delegation arrives in Paris.

The Egyptian accord also covers contracts for missile provider MBDA and French aeronautic equipment provider Safran Electronics & Defense, which are worth another 200m euros ($240m).

Diclose said: "The opacity surrounding these new contracts says a lot about the (French) executive's opposition to being accountable."

HRW director for France, Benedicte Jeannerod, told Reuters: "By signing a mega-arms contract with Sisi's government while the latter presides over the worst repression in decades in Egypt, the eradication of the human rights community in the country, and undertakes extremely serious violations under the pretext of the fight against terrorism, France is only encouraging this ruthless repression."

'Credible client'

The deal is a further boost for Dassault after a 2.5bn euro ($3bn) agreement was finalised in January for the sale of 18 Rafales to Greece.

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Paris was the main weapons supplier to Egypt between 2013-2017, including the sale of 24 of the same Rafale jets, with an option for 12 more. 

Those contracts dried up, including deals for more Rafale jets and warships that had been at an advanced stage.

Diplomats said that was as much to do with financing issues over fears about Cairo's long-term ability to repay state-backed guaranteed loans, rather than concerns Paris had with the human rights situation in Egypt.

Earlier on Tuesday, Egypt's defence ministry said the latest deal would be financed through a loan to be repaid over at least 10 years, but did not disclose the value of the deal or further details.

A French official said financing for the deal would be finalised on Tuesday with up to 85 percent guaranteed by the French state.

Disclose said the French banks BNP Paribas SA, Credit Agricole, Societe Generale and CIC, which funded the original deal, would also be signing up again. 

The banks were not immediately available for comment.

"We consider Egypt to be a credible client," the French official told Reuters, pointing to its previous track record with France when asked about fears of a potential default, and saying there was a continued dialogue with Egypt over human rights.

Closer ties

Under Sisi, Egypt has seen a widespread crackdown against human rights groups and independent media.

Egyptian authorities are accused of detaining more than 60,000 political prisoners since Sisi ousted his democratically elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, in a 2013 military coup. Harsh conditions in Egypt's prisons have led to the deaths of scores of prisoners, including Morsi, in 2019, while executions of prisoners under terrorism laws have been ramped up.

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Those jailed in Egypt include Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French national Celine Lebrun, held since July 2019 on accusations of acting against the state.

However, citing the political vacuum in Libya, instability across the region and the threat from militant groups in Egypt, Paris and Cairo have cultivated closer economic and military ties since Sisi's rise to power.

Rights organisations have accused Macron of turning a blind eye to the increasing violations of freedoms by Sisi's government.

French officials dismiss this and say Paris is following a policy of not openly criticising countries over human rights so as to be more effective in private on a case-by-case basis.