France must not sweep human rights abuses under the red carpet for Egypt’s al-Sisi

09/12/2020
OP-ED
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COSTAS BALTAS / AFP / POOL

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt destabilises regional security and tramples on human rights, argue Alice Mogwe, Malik Salemkour, and Bahey Eldin Hassan in an op-ed published in Le Monde.

Al-Sisi’s visit to Paris comes as the worst crackdown in modern Egyptian history is assailing the freedoms of the Egyptian people. The recent arrests of three leaders of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) – a member organisation of FIDH – and the decision to add two renowned human rights defenders, Mohamed Baqer and Alaa Abdel Fattah, to the terrorist list, are just the latest chapter in al-Sisi’s crackdown on his own people. Outrage over the arrest of EIPR members swept the world like wildfire, from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and actress Scarlett Johannson, to French authorities and the incoming US administration.

On 3 December, we learned that the three EIPR members, who are our colleagues and partners, were released after three weeks of anguish. They still face charges of "joining a terrorist group", "using a social media account to spread fake news" and "spreading fake news".

Two lessons can be drawn from these recent developments: first, that strong, coordinated, unified international pressure works. Second, we are still at the mercy of General al-Sisi.

Never in the history of modern Egypt have there been so many lawyers, human rights activists and trade unionists arrested for exercising their fundamental rights, whether it be for expressing an opinion, participating in a meeting or a peaceful demonstration, or simply exercising their profession as lawyers, journalists or doctors.

Behind this destruction of a vital social fabric looms an authoritarian state, ruled by a military junta that is unwilling to engage in dialogue with its citizens. Mass executions, enforced disappearances and widespread torture are the only tools used by the regime to interact with Egyptians. The Egyptian justice system has been called a "parody of justice" by the United Nations. Furthermore, there are attacks on the rights of women and LGBTI+ people, as well as rampant corruption and the militarisation of the economy. These myriad deviations from fundamental principles of human rights and rule of law weaken the very stability of the country in the region.

The crackdown orchestrated by General al-Sisi is widely documented by NGOs, journalists and civil society as a whole. As is the potential complicity of Western states such as France, which sells surveillance equipment to Egypt that may have been used to track down opponents, and Sherpa armored vehicles and Renault MIDS trucks seen in the streets of Cairo in 2013. Two years ago, our organisations documented possible use of French weapons in human rights violations.

Very recently, a French parliamentary report recognised the risks posed by the arms contracts signed with the Egyptian regime, mistakes long denounced by NGOs. Elected representatives of the majority were also moved by the fate of political prisoners in Egypt. The practices of successive French governments facing the Egyptian general raise questions even in the circles closest to power.

Today, General al-Sisi’s repressive machine continues to operate – and will continue to do so, as long as the country’s army is equipped. As long as economic aid is doled out and "dangerous terrorists" (read: human rights defenders) remain locked up.

If France were to respond by rolling out the red carpet for al-Sisi to thank him for graciously freeing three people who should never have spent a minute in detention and while more than 60,000 others continue to languish in prison, it would be tantamount to giving a green light to the Egyptian authorities who will believe that brutal repression has a very low political cost.

To the contrary, France must take a stand as a champion of human rights.

Mr. Macron, you must demand guarantees from al-Sisi in exchange for this visit to Paris – above all, the release of prisoners of conscience. You must suspend economic and military cooperation until Egypt’s human rights situation improves. Otherwise, France will have allowed the General to shine in the streets of Paris while human rights plunge ever further into darkness in Egypt.

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