President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that France would maintain defence and commercial ties with Egypt despite the military-led regime’s human rights record because co-operation would help in the struggle against terrorism and contribute to regional stability.
Mr Macron was speaking after hosting Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for talks at the Elysée Palace in defiance of sharp criticism from international human rights groups as well as liberal and leftwing French politicians.
“I won’t condition our co-operation in defence and economic matters on these disagreements [over human rights],” Mr Macron told a joint news conference.
“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.”
French officials have said Paris will maintain its “strategic partnership” with Egypt not only because of terrorism, but also because the two countries have common interests in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, where they are arrayed against an increasingly aggressive Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The official confirmation last week of Mr Sisi’s visit to France coincided with the release of three Egyptian rights activists.
On Friday, Egyptian prosecutors ordered the release from detention of three staff members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent rights group and among the last remaining such organisations still functioning despite a crackdown on civil society groups.
They had been arrested in November and their release followed an international outcry with the UN, the EU and the incoming US administration of Joe Biden calling for their freedom.
Mr Sisi sidestepped a question about the number of political prisoners in Egypt, rejecting the notion that he was a ferocious despot. “I am responsible for protecting 100m people,” he said. “We are a nation trying to create a good future for its citizens in a very unstable region.”
Activists said the arrests of the three activists were related to a meeting they hosted in their Cairo offices for 13 western diplomats including the French ambassador. The French foreign ministry issued a statement expressing its concern after the detention of the first staffer, prompting a rebuke from Cairo.
Despite the release of the three EIPR workers, on Sunday a terrorism court froze their assets and bank accounts. The prosecution had charged them with joining a terrorist organisation and spreading false news.
A fourth EIPR staffer, Patrick Zaki, has been detained since February and faces charges that include spreading false news and inciting protests. On Monday a court renewed his detention for another 45 days.
Egypt has bought billions of dollars’ worth of fighter jets and warships from France since Mr Sisi came to power in 2013 in a popularly backed coup in which he ousted his elected Islamist predecessor.
Mr Sisi has presided over one of the harshest crackdowns on dissent in Egypt’s modern history. Tens of thousands of Islamists have been arrested and detentions have also extended to secular critics of the regime, journalists, human rights lawyers and democracy activists.
Many face vague charges which include membership of an unspecified terrorist organisation or “sharing the aims” of a terrorist group. Rights activists are also concerned about the use of lengthy pre-trial detention which can extend to years as a form of punishment for peaceful dissenters.
Concerned about Islamist terrorism, migration and the disintegration of Libya, the west has largely stood by and said little in public about the crushing of dissent and civil society in Egypt. President Donald Trump described Mr Sisi as “my favourite dictator” and the two men appeared to enjoy a good rapport.