by Cinzia Bianco and Giorgio Cafiero
From October 23-26, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi made his first trip to Paris since Emmanuel Macron won France’s presidential election. Along with Sisi’s interest in securing greater investment and economic support from France, political and geopolitical matters were high on the agenda of the Egyptian president and the high-ranking Cairo officials that accompanied him. France is keen on strengthening its alliance with Egypt, a major purchaser of French weaponry—despite calls from human rights organizations to make financial and military support contingent on Egypt meeting certain human rights standards.
As a political heavyweight and a military power with relatively effective counter-terrorism capabilities, Egypt is a potential policeman in an area vulnerable to instability and the proliferation of terrorist organizations. In recent years, violent extremists have targeted both Egypt and France with scores of attacks. Both countries’ security apparatuses are highly concerned about fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) leaving Iraq and Syria for North Africa or Europe. The Egyptian Sinai, where a recent attack by a local offshoot of IS took place on October 16, is an area of mutual concern given the risks of it becoming more of a safe haven for terrorist groups.
Amid growing concerns about Egypt’s stability and the state’s capacity to effectively protect the country from terrorism, Sisi visited France to strengthen relations and further diversify Egypt’s web of security alliances. In 2015, when the United States was still wary of providing military aid to Sisi due to his regime’s human rights record, France and Egypt signed major military agreements. One of these included 24 Rafale combat aircraft, a multi-mission frigate, and missiles for 65.2 billion euros, financed by a French loan and with an option for an additional 12 aircrafts, which both governments are reportedly considering at the present time. In addition, Egypt and France signed contracts worth 2 billion euros last year, including one for a military satellite jointly built by Airbus Defence and Space (a subsidiary of the Airbus Group) and Thales Alenia Space (a joint French-Italian venture).
Although the French economy suffers from high unemployment and inflation, the defense industry has done relatively well, and the French government views arms sales as one way to create more jobs and acquire additional foreign exchange. Beyond the defense sector, the two countries are important investment partners. France is Egypt’s sixth largest foreign investor, with French investment in the Arab country’s economy surpassing $4 billion; Egypt, with a population of 97 million, is France’s number one Middle Eastern market.
Libya and Qatar
The Libyan civil war has brought Egypt and France closer. The rise of violent Islamist extremists in post-2011 Libya and the failure of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to assert authority beyond certain areas of Tripoli have prompted France and Egypt to join the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Russia in backing the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) to varying degrees since mid-2014.
Most Western governments, at least until quite recently, adamantly supported the GNA and refused to legitimize Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s ascendancy in Libya’s political arena. Yet throughout Libya’s civil war, France, more than any other European power, has aligned with Egypt’s support of the HoR and Haftar. Recently more Western governments are, at least unofficially, slowly recognizing Haftar as a legitimate political figure in Libya, who is capable of defeating armed extremists in battle. In light of resurgent IS attacks in Libya, coupled with Egypt’s security crises and the lingering jihadist threat in France and elsewhere in Europe, officials in Cairo and Paris would like to see growing political and security cooperation on the Libya file.
Seeing eye to eye on Libya does not mean that France and Egypt will do so on all high-stakes issues in the Middle East. Beyond Libya, there is ample margin for disagreement between the two countries. The Qatar crisis is a prime example of the divergent interests of Cairo and Paris. As the European country most involved in diplomatic efforts to mediate the Gulf dispute, France has maintained its close alliance with Qatar as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, collectively referred to after June 5 as the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ).
After the Gulf dispute broke out, France and Qatar continued holding joint military drills, often on fighter jets that the French have sold Doha over the years. Last month, Macron gave a big boost to Qatar by calling for “the embargo measures affecting the people of Qatar, in particular families and students, to be lifted as quickly as possible.”
Earlier this month, French ambassador to Qatar, Eric Chevallier, encouraged French investment, saying that Qatar “has been very resilient in facing the Gulf crisis” and shown its commitment “to further develop its economy” by “welcoming new foreign partners.”
Also last month, France hosted Emir Tamim after this visits to Turkey and Germany and on his way to New York where he met with President Donald Trump. This trip undoubtedly helped strengthen Qatar’s image as an Arab/Muslim state that enjoys cordial relations with global powers, not a pariah state sponsor of terrorism, as portrayed by Egypt and the other ATQ members.
Nonetheless, France’s relationship with Qatar is likely to be little more than an irritant in Cairo’s relationship with Paris. For Egypt, diversifying partnerships has been an important foreign policy strategy, especially since the Obama administration withheld arms sales to Cairo on human rights grounds following Mohammed Morsi’s 2013 ouster. Although the Egyptian leadership was highly optimistic about Trump’s prioritizing of security over human rights, the administration’s decision in August to deny Egypt roughly $100 million in aid and withhold another $195 million has left Cairo uneasy about its dependency on Washington, giving Sisi further incentive to invest in closer relationships with other global powers such as France and Russia, and his regional supporters, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Although doubtful that France would any time soon replace America as Egypt’s top supplier of arms and closest ally, a stronger relationship between Cairo and Paris (or Moscow) will likely afford Sisi greater leverage in his relationship with the Trump administration. Simultaneously, the contraction of US influence in the Arab world, underscored by the Trump administration’s handling of the Gulf dispute, has offered France an opportunity to play more of a leadership role as demonstrated by Macron’s efforts to mediate the Libyan civil war and the Gulf dispute.
Macron, a centrist who promises to promote French values while also standing up for French economic and security interests in a fast-changing world, must address the country’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks from Middle Eastern and homegrown actors. The young president sees Egypt as an anchor of secularism and stability in the Middle East and thus a vital ally in the struggle against violent extremism.
In an effort to strike a balance between national interests and espoused values, Macron said during Sisi’s visit that although France stands for human rights, he refuses to “lecture” Egypt on such issues. The French president will likely receive criticism from those who maintain that Egypt’s crackdown on political dissidents—as well as its surveillance and censorship—to counter extremism will only breed further radicalization. In the process, however, Macron will gain greater favor from an Egyptian leadership eager to push the West to subordinate human-rights concerns to economic and security priorities.
Photo: Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi and French President Emmanuel Macron attend the signing of a joint declaration.