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France & Egypt: Sisi and Macron’s exceptional relationship

By Jihâd Gillon
Posted on Tuesday, 15 December 2020 12:07

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, greets egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Elysee Palace on 7 December 2020 in Paris. © Michel Euler / AP / SIPA

During the reception in Paris of Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, President Emmanuel Macron showed an abundance of consideration for his counterpart; a contrast to the tone used with his other African peers.

A “strategic partnership”. This is how President Macron described Franco-Egyptian relations during Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s state visit to Paris on 7 December. This formulaic statement is often made by heads of state during bilateral meetings to express their mutually beneficial relationship.

In fact, since President Sisi’s accession to power after a military coup in 2013, Cairo and Paris have been rekindling their love affair that began during the era of Mohamed Ali (1769-1849), the founder of modern Egypt. The fight against Islamism, the close relationship between the french Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and the Egyptian president, the rejection of Turkish regional expansionism, a common appreciation of the Libyan dossier, the purchase of French arms… The Franco-Egyptian relationship offers a rare example of convergence of heart and reason.

READ MORE Abdel-Fattah Al-Sissi: Egypt’s President Elect

And what does it matter the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Egyptian jails, Sissi’s extended mandate or the generals’ stranglehold on the country’s economy? Macron did briefly mention human rights, but it was like a chore to be crossed off his to-do list. One does not compromise an exceptional relationship for such trifles.

“Exceptional”

Regarding the French president’s relationship with his other African peers, “exceptional” is certainly a word that can only be applied to the Franco-Egyptian relationship. For, as far as the rest of the continent is concerned, and in particular French-speaking countries, Macron seems much less concerned about diplomatic norms. To support this argument, one need look no further than the interview that Macron gave to us at the end of November.

READ MORE President Macron: ‘Between France and Africa, it must be a love story’

Thus, for the French president, there are different types of “military coup d’état”. In Egypt, it is synonymous with the re-establishment of order and an Islamist backlash. In Mali, on the other hand, it is necessary to “do everything possible to keep it [the military transition] as short as possible with a commitment to elections.”

A man holds a poster representing Egypt’s President Sisi in Paris, on 8 December 2020. (Michel Euler/AP/SIPA)

Certainly, on the issue of extended presidential terms, Macron initially held a position of non-interference – “It is not for me to say that the Constitution must provide for x or y terms.” This was before acknowledging that he had had “very frank discussions” on this subject with Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara and the President of Guinea, Alpha Condé. The latter in particular, “organised a referendum and a change in the Constitution just to remain in power”, said the French president.

READ MORE The rise of Africa’s new ‘old men’

The Egyptian president, who held a similar referendum in 2019 (winning with 88% in favour of the vote, almost a disappointment given the national tradition of electoral results), obviously had no other concerns than that of his people. In power until 2030? A calling at the service of stability – the word was pronounced at every opportunity by the French president during the press conference with Sisi.

An amazing indulgence

From the point of view of personal relations between presidents, is there be a clear separation in the French president’s mind between North African states and sub-Saharan Africa? In a recent interview with us, Macron showed astonishing indulgence towards the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, to whom he gave unprecedented and warm support.

READ MORE Algeria – France: Macron interview raises hackles

This, in spite of the repression of “Hirak”, the counter-revolutionary atmosphere that has weighed on Algiers for months during which journalists were arrested. Perhaps he did not want to overwhelm a sick man with criticism, whose real state of health is today Algeria’s best kept secret.

Perhaps also, and even more likely, he knows that a French president walks on eggshells whenever he speaks about Algeria, and that it is impossible for him to criticise too openly the power of a state so jealous of its sovereignty. Presidents in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have that same luxury.

Rolling out the red carpet

In the field of security cooperation as well, a big gap has been observed. With the Egyptian president, the question of “civil society” (the word democracy had for the most part been avoided) has been almost systematically weighed against the needs of the fight against terrorism and the stakes of regional stability. In the Sahel, on the other hand, France intervenes only because neighbouring states have requested it, according to Macron.

READ MORE Egypt: Sisi’s power reinforced after passing of new law

These same states are invited to renew their request if they want France to continue to protect them from the threat of terrorism. It is true that the balance of power is not the same: Paris needs its Egyptian partner (One of France’s major clients of its arms industry) at least as much as the other way around. This explains the eagerness with which the Élysée Palace rolled out the red carpet for Sisi.