France is accused of putting profit before human rights violations as the Egyptian President prepares to visit Paris.
French President Emmanual Macron is set to roll out the red carpet for the Egyptian autocrat President Abdel Fattah El Sisi who is set to arrive on a two-day state visit to the country on Monday.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has strongly urged the Elysee Palace to press Sisi on his record of “human rights violations” which Macron in the past has waved away as merely tough policies.
In an open letter signed by 17 organisations, HRW urged Macron to press the Sisi regime to “release arbitrarily detained activists.”
The strongly-worded letter went on to say that “French diplomacy has, at the highest levels, long indulged President al-Sisi’s brutal repression of any form of dissent.”
The signatories added that Sisi’s unjust and arbitrary imprisoning is “rewarded with arms deals and praise” undermining France's “commitment to human rights in Egypt.”
In 2019 alone, France sold more than $1 billion worth of arms to Egypt. The sales have been described as “profound contradictions of French diplomacy.”
France, a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, launched an initiative at the UN’s headquarters in 2019 to “implement and strengthen international humanitarian law, particularly as regards the protection of humanitarian workers and healthcare personnel”.
If France doesn’t bring up the plight of jailed human rights defenders, it “would sabotage France’s own efforts to promote human rights within its partnership with Egypt and undermine France’s credibility in many countries in the region,” said the HRW letter.
Who is being held in jail?
In early November, Egyptian security forces arrested three directors from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the last remaining independent human rights organisations in the country. The arrests occurred after the group’s leaders met the ambassadors of several European countries to discuss Egypt’s human rights record.
The arrests were condemned internationally and the human rights defenders were released from jail earlier this month after foreign pressure. One of the group’s members is still in jail after he was arrested in February of this year.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time condemned the arrests and warned that such actions were “having a profound chilling effect on an already weakened Egyptian civil society”.
While it is unclear exactly how many political prisoners are in Egyptian jails, the numbers are widely believed to be in the thousands. Some estimates put the numbers at 60,000.
Since Sisi gained the top job via a military coup in 2013, overthrowing the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, his rule has been marked by increasing intolerance towards dissent and any form of critique.
A long time Egypt watcher has described the situation in the country starkly as “Egypt faced terrible repression during the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak eras, but nothing like today’s sustained cruelty”.
When Morsi died in prison in 2019 awaiting politically motivated charges, his detention was described by the UN as “brutal, particularly during his five-year detention in the Tora prison complex.”
In October of this year, the Sisi regime executed 15 political prisoners, some of which had organised protests against the military coup in 2013.
The cramped and often dilapidated conditions in Egyptian prisons has meant that vulnerable prisoners are also being exposed to the risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Egyptian authorities have paid little heed to such concerns and have been accused of exposing political prisoners to the virus.
What does a Biden administration mean for Sisi
Following Joe Biden’s victory on November 3, an Egyptian court released over 600 political prisoners including journalists, lawyers, bloggers, human rights activists, and political leaders.
A Biden presidency will stand in contrast to the relationship Sisi has had with the sitting US President Donald Trump, who has called the Egyptian autocrat a "fantastic guy" and his "favourite dictator”.
In July of this year, Biden tweeted that there would be “No more blank checks for Trump’s "favourite dictator," in reference to Sisi.
Although the Egyptian president emerged during the Barack Obama Presidency, in which Biden was Vice President, the increasing repression in Egypt that has largely been condoned by a Trump administration, may be coming to end.
Sisi’s visit to France, therefore, is an important one given that an incoming Biden administration may well take a tougher line than Cairo has been accustomed to over the last four years.