‘Egypt is a very useful partner for a declining France’ says analyst

By Mourad R. Kamel

Posted on Tuesday, 1 June 2021 17:32
France Egypt
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attend a joint press conference at the Elysee palace, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, Pool)

France may talk the talk when it comes to its concerns over Egypt's handling of human rights, but at the end of the day, the African country is its best customer of arms and closest ally in the fight against political Islam.

When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Egypt in January 2019, he underlined how stability and lasting peace go hand-in-hand with respect for individual freedoms and dignity as well as the rule of law. “This stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights,” he told Egyptian and French reporters at the Ettihadeya Palace. Macron also announced that he would be meeting with local human rights organisations – a remark that did not go unnoticed.

Given that France had hundreds of millions worth of prospective military contracts with Egypt, Macron’s words carried much weight. La Tribune reports that in the wake of Macron’s visit, the French arms attaché was summoned to be informed of the termination of prospective arm contracts that were launched in 2015 by Jean-Yves le Drian (France’s former french minister of defense under Francois Hollande, and the current minister of foreign affairs).

But a lot can happen in a year. During this time, France learned its lesson: as the saying goes ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results’. Only in this case, France was saying the same thing.

Change of tone

When it was President Sisi’s turn to visit France, he was welcomed by a cavalry parade through Paris. When asked about human rights, Macron underlined the fact that he would not “condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on disagreements over human rights” but avoided raising concern over the case of Ramy Shaath, a human rights defender and husband of French citizen Celine Lebrun-Shaath.

During a state dinner, Sisi was also decorated with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award. French journalists were not informed of this ceremony that dramatically and concretely changed the tone of relations between Cairo and Paris. If keeping out the French press was a way the presidential palace could quickly sweep the situation under the rug, the Egyptian presidency did the opposite and drew attention to it. And it clearly meant the era of private collaborations between the two countries was back.

It doesn’t see Egypt as part of its sphere of influence; but by having a defence client in Egypt, Paris cultivates its image abroad.

According to confidential documents obtained by Disclose, Egypt signed a contract, on 26 April, with the French state for the purchase of 30 fighter planes and missiles at a cost of nearly €4bn.

New reports indicate that an observation satellite (Airbus) and two MRTT tankers have also been purchased and will cost €1.5bn (total deal is worth €5.5bn).

Despite such hardy purchases, it is important to note that Egypt has an external debt of €104bn as per the Egyptian Central Bank. But the transaction to finance this purchase will be through a loan from French banks that will cover 85% of the expenses. The Egyptians requested that the deal remain secret.

“The recent (as of 2015) spike in defence contracts between both countries is another incentive for France to privilege the relationship with Egypt and its government,” says Elie Abouaoun, the director of MENA programmes at the US Institute of Peace.

France has positioned itself as the third largest exporter of weapons worldwide as per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, while Egypt is 7th in the list of top weapons purchasers in the world. Egyptian imports of French armaments amounted to €7.7bn between 2010 and 2019. This makes Egypt the fourth largest customer for arms from France, according to an annual report presented to the French Parliament.

‘Egypt is rebuilding its foreign policy in the region’

“Egypt is a very useful partner for a declining France. As President Macron is counting his losses in Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Gaza and other regional matters, France is doubling down on securing solid partnerships in order to save what remains of its political leverage in the region. Economically, Egypt is an indispensable economic partner too with its growing needs of the military and its strategic location,” says Abouaoun.

But behind these lavish state visits, and expensive military contracts lies a common denominator between Egypt and France: an ideological war against political islam.

“In Libya, both countries were heavily involved in supporting the East-based government against the UN recognised (pro-Turkish) government in West Libya. Despite the recent UN brokered political agreement, the outcome of the confrontation in Libya is still uncertain with thousands of pro-Turkish fighters deployed all over the country. Therefore, both Egypt and France have an interest in collaborating together in order to prevent a pro Muslim Brotherhood government from settling in Tripoli,” says Abouaoun.

He notes Turkey’s controversial agenda in the Eastern Mediterranean, of which France has taken a leading role as mediator, is certainly a major asset for Egypt.

But for Jalel Harchaoui, senior fellow at the Global Initiative, the commercial relationship between Paris and Cairo reflects France’s desire to depict itself as a provider of top-of-the-line defence technology.

France also asserts itself as a reliable friend for authoritarian governments battling political Islam. “Paris decided that the credit risk associated with the funding for those 30 Rafale jets, was not going to be a show-stopper. French foreign policy cares more about prestige and maximising sales, than day-to-day management of risks in the  region,” says Harchaoui.

“France does not feel responsible for actual security in Libya, nor for stability in Sinai. It doesn’t see Egypt as part of its sphere of influence; but by having a defense client in Egypt, Paris cultivates its image abroad,” says Harchaoui.

He underlines how Cairo has been doing rather well lately when it comes to diplomacy. “Egypt is rebuilding its foreign policy across its entire vicinity. It is managing its diplomacy and image effectively. It is also moving away from Emirati influence on its foreign policy, with somewhat of a rapprochement with Turkey. As for its financial situation, Egypt runs a huge debt — and seems comfortable with this sort of fiscal brinkmanship,” he says.

Egypt is in effect changing the political zeitgeist of the region with:

  • The central role it played in instigating a truce between Israelis and Palestinians after 11 days of violence between both sides.
  • It has also endeavoured – albeit slowly – to rebuild ties with Turkey and Qatar. The two countries have stood firmly against Sisi since his election in 2014.
  • Egypt is also signing multiple joint defence and military cooperation agreements with Sudan, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti, in a bid to show its influence and send a warning to a defiant Ethiopia, that vows to start filling its contested Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD).

 Bottom line

It is rather clear that bilateral relations between France and Egypt is based on common ideological grounds, with a strong commitment to opposing political islam. When asked by the Egyptian independent online news site Mada Masr in 2015 about the importance of Franco-Egyptian cooperation in the region, Romain Nadal – a former spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs under Francois Hollande – summed up the French perspective quite well:

“Of course we make our comments regarding human rights issues in Egypt, but at the end we do not look upon President Sisi as we do Bashar al-Assad. We see a regime that is fighting terrorism and we have to protect it. In short, we do not want to see Egypt face the same fate as Libya, Syria and Iraq.”

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