France’s Complacency in Al-Sisi’s Human Rights’ Abuses in Egypt

French military equipment has been used to quash popular protests in Egypt, underscoring France’s contribution to human rights violations in the North African country.
Youssef Igrouane
Youssef Igrouane is a Moroccan journalist and researcher. He holds a master's degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe in Belgium. He focuses on the geopolitical and sociopolitical issues in the MENA region and Euro-Mediterranean relations.
FRANCE-EGYPT-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) shakes hands with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) as he welcomes him upon his arrival ahead of talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on October 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Philippe LOPEZ

Over the last ten years, Egypt has become a key purchaser of French weapons; they played a major role in the brutal crackdown on protesters in Egypt in early 2011, according to Amnesty International.

French-Egyptian relations have been growing stronger since 2014, when Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, then Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, staged a successful military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. France has since become the biggest supplier of arms to Egypt, surpassing the U.S.

Between 2012 and 2016, under the presidency of Francois Hollande, Paris sold more military equipment to Cairo than it had in the prior 20 years.

During his first ever visit to Egypt in late January 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron denied allegations that France had ignored international law, despite reports that French arms had been used against Egyptian civilians during the Arab Spring protests.

Excerpts of the Egyptian Revolution

Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied on January 25, 2011, protesting corruption, police oppression, and then-President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. By February 11, Mubarak had resigned, after 30 years in office.

A year later, presidential elections were held, and Morsi became president on June 30, 2012. However, Morsi’s presidency was soon met with opposition from large segments of society, many of whom feared his pledge to codify Islamic law in the constitution.

The Islamist president granted himself executive powers over the judicial system in November 2012, including immunity from prosecution for his actions as Egypt’s leader. This move sparked mass violent demonstrations that escalated over the months that followed and eventually led to his forceful deposition by al-Sisi in June 2014.

Just two months after al-Sisi’s military coup against Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered in protest in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, calling for Morsi’s release and reinstatement. In what became known as the Rabaa Massacre, al-Sisi’s security forces opened fire on Morsi supporters, killing at least 800 people and wounding more than 4,000.

French Weapons Used in Rabaa Massacre

Based on 20 hours of video footage, hundreds of photographs, and 450 gigabytes of additional audio-visual material, Amnesty International released a 53-page report in November 2018 that detailed the Egyptian security forces’ use of French-manufactured weapons and armored vehicles that were allegedly only licensed for counterterrorism purposes.

Footage from the Rabaa Massacre showed the insignia of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior Special-Operation Forces and Central Security Forces painted on the French-supplied vehicles: MIDS, a Renault-made protected vehicle specifically designed for “internal security missions” and Sherpa, another Renault vehicle developed for “intervention and logistic units.” The brutal intervention “killed up to 1,000 people, the largest number of protesters in a single day in modern Egyptian history,” said Amnesty.  

By exporting military equipment to a country in political turmoil, France flouted international law and ignored its legal obligations under the United Nations (UN) Arms Trade Treaty, which prohibits the transfer of arms that could be used “to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law.”

France Puts its Interests First

Amid continued international condemnation of the al-Sisi regime’s human rights abuses, Macron visited Egypt in early 2019 to consolidate ties with Egypt and sign a number of bilateral trade agreements in the transport and renewable energy sectors.

Eight human rights groups put pressure on Macron to speak out against the deterioration of freedom in Egypt.

Eight human rights groups put pressure on Macron to speak out against the deterioration of freedom in Egypt. During a joint press conference with al-Sisi, a French journalist asked Macron if Paris sold arms to Cairo for the maintenance of public order. Macron responded that French military equipment was sold on the condition that it would only be used for military purposes, and that France had contacted Egypt for an explanation when it discovered that an armored vehicle was used on protesters in 2013.

“The fact that these transfers were made – and continued to be made – even though the Egyptian authorities have taken zero steps towards accountability and have failed to introduce any measures to signal an end to their pattern of abuses, puts France at risk of complicity in the ongoing human rights crisis in Egypt,” Amnesty stated.

The French sale of arms to al-Sisi’s regime contributes to authoritarianism and promotes the abuse of civil liberties. In 2017 alone, France sold $1.6 billion worth of warships, fighter aircraft, armored vehicles, and surveillance equipment to Egypt, justifying the sales as alliance-building with a country that ostensibly helps to fight terrorism.

The flourishing partnership between France and Egypt is part of al-Sisi’s strategy to “buy France’s silence.”

The flourishing partnership between France and Egypt is part of al-Sisi’s strategy to “buy France’s silence” regarding his continued violations of freedom of speech and human dignity, according to Libération. And it appears that al-Sisi’s efforts have not been in vain.

During the Egyptian leader’s visit to Paris in October 2017, Macron, who took office in May of the same year, explicitly said that it was not up to him to “lecture” al-Sisi, despite at least 60,000 political prisoners having been incarcerated since the autocratic leader’s rise to power.

Macron sees al-Sisi as a “stabilizing force in the region” and a reliable regional ally for France.

Macron sees al-Sisi as a “stabilizing force in the region” and a reliable regional ally for France, regarding the political situation in Libya, which is split between two parties: on the one hand, the UN-backed government in Tripoli, supported by Italy, Qatar, and Turkey, and, on the other, the eastern Libyan National Army controlled by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and Egypt.  Paris is urging Libyan elections by the end of 2019, while countries such as Italy are calling for their postponement.

Amnesty International’s report undermines France’s claims that human rights and liberty are integral parts of its national identity. As it continues to turn a blind eye to its responsibility in the repression of the Egyptian people, France, under different presidents, continues not only to violate international human rights law, but also to betray its own values. In an increasingly competitive international arms sales arena, manufacturing countries are known to be complacent and complicit. Nevertheless, the least Paris can do is monitor the use of its military weapons lest it run the risk of abetting al-Sisi’s intent to turn Egypt into an open-air prison.