On January 27, President Emmanuel Macron began his first official visit to Egypt. Relations between the two countries and presidents have never been warmer. Macron has justified France’s support for Egypt, despite the well documented human rights abuses by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, by saying that France considers Egypt a bulwark against terrorism. Macron has gone as far as to say that “Egypt’s security is France’s security.”
In the name of this friendship, France has sold many weapons to Egypt, overtaking the US to become Egypt’s main arms supplier between 2013 and 2017. In 2017 alone, it delivered more than EUR 1.4 billion worth of military and security equipment. France has provided warships, fighter jets, and armored vehicles, while French companies – with the government’s approval - have provided surveillance and crowd control tools. Last December in Cairo, French Defense Minister Florence Parly cut the ribbon with al-Sisi for Egypt’s first arms show.
When Macron has been criticized for his support for al-Sisi, his answer has been that he wants to be pragmatic and “does not want to lecture” al-Sisi on human rights. But the issue here is not about France lecturing Egypt or a case of naïve activists unaware of the security risks in Egypt. The issue is about France directly enabling abuses and not respecting its own international obligations regulating arms sales, which prohibit arms transfers to countries where there is a substantial risk that they could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations.
The French authorities contend that they have only licensed military equipment as part of the “fight against terrorism” in Egypt and not for law enforcement operations. But as recent reports by Amnesty International and FIDH have demonstrated, French-supplied armored vehicles were used by Egyptian security forces to violently disperse peaceful sit-ins across the country. Amnesty International noted, “French vehicles were not merely assisting the security forces, but were themselves tools of repression, playing a very active role in the crushing of dissent.”
In response to the criticism, the French government argues that such exports were intended for the Egyptian military, not the police. But France should have monitored the use of weapons and equipment it exported, and there is no evidence that France put a stop to the weapons transfers once it became clear that Egypt had diverted their use.
In addition to its direct support for the military and police, the French government has authorized French companies to sell Egyptian authorities various surveillance systems for intercepting communications and controlling social movements. The Egyptian state’s ever-expanding surveillance has been used to target human rights and labor activists, LGBT people, political activists, and academics. Al-Sisi’s fear of social movements is so deep that in December his government even banned the sale of yellow vests in fear of copycat protests in advance of the anniversary of the 2011 uprising.
Even France’s claims that al-Sisi is essential to the fight against terrorism looks shaky on closer inspection. Egypt is indeed facing a dangerous insurgency by extremist fighters in the northern Sinai Peninsula, a historically marginalized territory. But the way the Egyptian security forces have countered this insurgency has been a textbook case of abuses that have not just violated human rights but alienated large segments of the local population that these actions are supposed to protect.
Egyptian forces carried out unlawful mass destruction of homes and forcible evictions of tens of thousands of residents in northern Sinai with little or no help or temporary accommodation for the people forced out of their homes. Human Rights Watch’s research shows that the Egyptian military and police have carried out widespread arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings, in northern Sinai while attempting to conceal these abuses through restrictions on independent reporting. Residents of the area told us that they no longer knew whom to trust. France is happy to whitewash these abuses in the name of the fight against terrorism.
In other parts of Egypt, the situation is not much better. Torture and enforced disappearances occur regularly, and overcrowded prisons with brutal detention conditions are becoming breeding grounds for radicalization, former inmates say. Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have used the cover of counterterrorism to go after all forms of dissent. Egypt has not only banned the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, but also secular groups like the April 6 Youth Movement, an activist group that played a key role in the protests organized against Hosni Mubarak in 2011. A March 2018 video by the Interior Ministry portrays a threat to Egypt’s security emanating from groups ranging from ISIS to human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.
By offering unconditional and uncritical support, France has made it harder to get Egypt to revisit its current approach. Despite the government’s massive military efforts, northern Sinai residents hardly feel more secure. Many displaced by the violence in past years have reported losing hope of going back home. According to data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the number of armed violent events in Egypt nearly doubled between November and December 2018 due to the escalation of the fighting between Egyptian forces and the Islamic State. According to ACLED, Egypt became the third-most-active country in terms of violence on the African continent in December, after Somalia and Nigeria.
In this context, one wonders who is being naïve in their approach to Egypt. The human rights groups who are documenting an out of control “war on terror” that seems to be creating more enemies by the day or a French government which keeps throwing weapons at a problem that seems to be getting worse? No one is asking President Macron to lecture al-Sisi, but rather to meet his own obligations to respect human rights. France should suspend all sales and provision of security-related items and assistance to Egypt until the government ends serious human rights violations, and Macron’s government should introduce effective end-use monitoring to ensure that France is not complicit in grave crimes.