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Macron, Sisi and the hypocrisy of France's so-called defence of human rights

By undermining the Egyptians suffering from the authoritarian rule of Sisi, the French president has shown his colonial mentality is still strong
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) welcomes his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at the Elysee presidential palace on 7 December (AFP)

How fitting that as we mark a decade since the Arab uprisings, France lays out the red carpet for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a man who since 2013 has made it his mission to crush every remnant of the revolutionary spirit that swept the country back then.

The state visit organised for the Egyptian ruler earlier this month has highlighted, once again, the French republic's lack of commitment to human rights.

Macron's only interest was securing stronger arms deals with Egypt. It matters little to the republic, how and where those arms are used nor the types of hands they end up in

In the lead-up to the visit, pressure was applied from activists and human rights groups including Amnesty International.

They pointed to the fact that organising such an official visit, amidst continued targeting of political dissidents by the Egyptian regime, was hugely problematic. It would be an exercise in legitimising Sisi and his ilk, despite the crimes being committed against the Egyptian people.  

The visit, however, proceeded. And the whitewashing of Sisi's crimes only worsened.

Macron did not take the opportunity to raise the deplorable human rights record of the Egyptian ruler, much less hold him accountable for the more than 60,000 political prisoners rotting in his jails, nor for the continued disappearances, use of torture, police brutality, press censorship and the targeting of women in the name of protecting "morality" all taking place under his command.

In fact, the French president went further and added insult to injury when during a joint press conference at the Elysee he shamelessly stated: "I won't condition our co-operation in defence and economic matters on these disagreements [over human rights]."

Not only did he spit in the face of those who vocalised their concerns, but he reminded us all that for the French state profit trumps everything, including human rights. Macron's only interest was securing bigger arms deals with Egypt. It matters little to the republic, how and where those arms are used nor the types of hands they end up in.

When the news hit that Sisi was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, it was clear how far the French government is willing to go to strengthen its military relationship, and how much wealth it stands to gain.

Loud and clear

The message was loud and clear: as long as repressive regimes in the MENA region that order killings and arrests, stifle civil liberties and criminalise freedom of speech are protecting the economic interests of the French state, they shall be rewarded.

The war on terror is the perfect loophole for Macron to explain away the undermining of human rights at home and abroad

There is little historical evidence to trust that any French leader would have done things differently. Lest we forget, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was also given the Legion of Honour back in 2001. Only once the political relationship had changed following the Syrian civil war did Macron call for Assad to be stripped of the privilege.

In reality, the bloodshed and repression at the hands of the Assad family had been taking place well before the war had erupted, but back then they were "allies" in the region. 

Through this process, Macron has once more underlined the hypocrisy of France's so-called defence of human rights on international platforms. By undermining the Egyptians suffering caused by Sisi's authoritarian rule, Macron has shown that his colonial mentality still prevails.

Egyptian police cadets take part in a training session at a police academy in the capital Cairo on December 30, 2019.
Egyptian police cadets take part in a training session at a police academy in the capital Cairo on 30 December 2019 (AFP)

The rights of global south populations cannot possibly match those bestowed upon the civilised masses in Europe, so why undermine the potential for profit for those who are so disposable? Or perhaps his universalism is genuine - which would explain his own commitment to violent repression of political movements and the repeated assaults on civil liberties in France. 

Dirty dealings

This state of affairs is not limited to Egypt, sadly. France adopts a similar approach to Saudi Arabia as it continues to sell its arms to the regime. This is despite the knowledge that the arms are being used against the Yemeni people in a war that has claimed over 230,000 lives and displaced over 3.3 million.

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Amnesty International reported that the complicity went even deeper, when it published a report about Saudi soldiers being trained in eastern France on how to use the French military arsenal they were acquiring, which has since reportedly been used against the Yemeni population. France not only puts the literal bullets in their hands, it even shows them how to pull the trigger. What wonderful values the French republic exports.

And how does it justify such dirty dealings? Anti-terrorism of course.

The war on terror is the perfect loophole for Macron to explain away the undermining of human rights at home and abroad. Within his own nation, he has waged war on civil liberties and has been targeting mass movements like the Yellow Vests. Following the killing of school teacher Samuel Paty and the stabbings outside a church in Nice, Macron introduced further securitisation measures and counter-extremism policies that primarily target Muslims but also impact the freedoms of all.

This was followed by the French government introducing a draft security law that reduces accountability of state forces even further, by criminalising those who film police activity - a tool often used to document their acts of brutality.  

Shared mission

With the Egyptian regime, the shared mission of "fighting terrorism" is used to justify a political relationship that is more driven by greed and power.

The war on terror is the perfect loophole for Macron to explain away the undermining of human rights at home and abroad

"It's better to have a demanding dialogue than a boycott policy that would reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism . . .  It [a boycott] would be ineffective on human rights and counter-productive as regards terrorism," announced Macron at the press conference. I suppose he didn't specify whose human rights he was referring to here - certainly not the Egyptian people's.

The French state's relationship to "rights" is always connected to its own interests, as is the "terrorism" it claims to fight.

This doesn't mean that all is lost for those fighting against the normalisation of these political relationships and trying to hold the French government to account.

Leaders are forced to backtrack or adopt change when the pressure from below is intense enough - and luckily, these last few weeks Macron is once again discovering the intensity of popular anger.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye,

Malia Bouattia
Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former president of the National Union of Students, co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network and presenter/panelist on British Muslim TV's Women Like Us.