The French government should ensure that human rights are central to its relationship with Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today. France should stop ignoring serious abuses, including Egyptian security services' widespread and systematic use of torture, which likely constitutes a crime against humanity. President Emmanuel Macron will hold his first meeting with President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Paris on October 24, 2017. Al-Sisi will also meet with the heads of the French National Assembly and Senate.
The meetings should serve as an opportunity to revise France's economic, security, and military support to the Egyptian government, making it conditional on tangible human rights improvements. Under former President Francois Hollande, France provided billions of dollars' worth of military equipment to Egypt and rarely criticized these serious violations.
"President Macron should not miss the chance to make a first impression on al-Sisi that Egypt's human rights record will not be given a pass," said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. "Continuing to support Egypt's repressive government would betray the country's brave activists, who face grave risks trying to make their country better."
In recent years, the French-Egyptian relationship has centered on military and security cooperation and counterterrorism. Two weeks after Macron took office, on May 30, he called al-Sisi and told him that France "stands with Egypt against terrorism" following the May 26 attack by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) that killed 29 Egyptian Copts in Minya governorate.
Five days later, the new French defense minister, Sylvie Goulard, met with her Egyptian counterpart, Sedki Sobhi, and al-Sisi in Cairo. On June 8, France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was in Cairo for a day of meetings, including with al-Sisi. "We had meetings on fighting terrorism and the stabilization of Libya," Le Drian said.
Le Drian previously served as defense minister and oversaw several weapons transfers to Egypt, visiting Egypt eight times in three years.
Egypt is one of France's top weapons customers. Since 2014, Egypt has signed deals worth roughly US$10 billion in military equipment and weapons. This included a US$1 billion deal in 2014 to provide four warships, and a US$6 billion deal in 2015 to provide 24 Rafale jet fighters. France has also provided many other weapons and military services including a military satellite for US$700 million, two Mistral helicopter carriers originally built for sale to Russia, for US$1 billion, and rockets as well as small, firearms, and ammunitions for almost US$1 billion.
France's arms export policy does not provide for proactive end-use monitoring after the sale, but it is still governed by rights-related regulations, including the December 2008 European Council Common Position that defined eight criteria governing arms exports, including respect for human rights. The 2008 position requires EU countries to "deny an export license if there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used for internal repression," or "... in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law."
The 2008 position stated that "internal repression" includes torture, arbitrary or summary executions, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention.
France's arms exports to Egypt also violate the conclusions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, which said on August 21, 2013, that European countries should suspend arms exports that could be used in internal repression. The statement followed the violent dispersal by the government of mass protests opposing the forcible removal by al-Sisi, then-defense minister, of former President Mohamed Morsy, killing over 1,000 people in one day, on August 14.
The Egyptian government under al-Sisi's rule has shown utter disregard for the country's constitution and international law. Al-Sisi has presided over Egypt's worst human rights crisis in the country in decades. Egyptian authorities have arrested or charged at least 60,000 people, forcibly disappeared hundreds for months at a time, handed down preliminary death sentences to hundreds more, and sent more than 15,000 civilians to military courts. The primary target has been the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition movement, but almost no single peaceful group escaped the repression.
Egypt's security forces systematically use torture, a public inquiry by the United Nations Committee Against Torture concluded in 2017. Human Rights Watch documented what amounts to an "assembly line" of enforced disappearance and torture by the Interior Ministry's National Security Agency that included, most commonly, electric shocks and stress positions and sometimes rape or the threat of rape. The systematic use of torture since al-Sisi rose to power probably amounts to a crime against humanity.
In Northern Sinai, fighting with the ISIS-affiliate Wilayat Sinai has been marred by abuses. In one example, a video leak in April showed army officers accompanied by a pro-government militia executing blindfolded detainees at close range.
Nongovernmental groups and activists face a brutal government crackdown, including prosecutions and travel bans. A new law regulating nongovernmental groups, that al-Sisi passed in May, criminalizes the work of independent groups and threatens to end their decades-long independent work in the country.
The French Foreign Ministry has released statements about almost every major attack against Egyptian security forces, but French officials rarely speak about the dire and systematic violations these forces commit. In response to a journalist's question on the mass arrests of dozens of gay people in Egypt, Le Drian said on October 9 that "Human rights are regularly discussed with the Egyptians as part of our trust-based relationship."
The French government says that Egypt is central to regional stability and that it is important to support Egypt's security forces. But Egypt's counterterrorism policy, shadowed by grave abuses and used as a pretext to stifle all forms of peaceful dissent, may be cultivating an environment of radicalization. Young people are left with no means to peacefully express their opposition. Many analysts question the counterterrorism policy's effectiveness as well. Violent attacks have been generally on the rise. Heavy military operations have been extended to al-Arish, the biggest city in the North Sinai governorate. Several studies have shown that prisons in Egypt are becoming a fertile environment for radicalization.
Al-Sisi is also set to meet with French businesses as well as MEDEF, the biggest French entrepreneurs network, to discuss economic ties and their investments in Egypt. France was the sixth-largest investor in Egypt in 2016 with more than 160 French companies involved. French businesses should be aware of the relentless crackdown on independent groups, including the near-absolute ban on independent workers' unions and the criminalization of peaceful sit-ins. Since 2016, Human Rights Watch found, Egyptian authorities have arrested at least 183 workers for workplace protests or involvement in independent unions, dozens of whom were sent to trial, sometimes before military courts.
"President Macron should refuse to continue France's disgraceful policies of indulgence toward al-Sisi's repressive government," Jeannerod said. "Saying that issues are discussed but continuing to take no action would be like sweeping the grievances and pains of Egyptians under the carpet."