PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that he would not condition the sale of arms to Egypt to human rights because he did not want to weaken Cairo’s ability to fight terrorism in the region, a comment that may anger critics.
The two states – which share concerns about instability across the Sahel, threats from jihadist groups in Egypt and the political vacuum in Libya – cultivated closer economic and military ties during President Abdel Fattah’s rise to power al-Sissi.
But 17 French and international human rights groups released a statement ahead of Sisi’s visit to France, accusing Macron of turning a blind eye to what they say are growing violations of freedoms by Sisi’s government.
“I will not condition questions of defense and economic cooperation on these disagreements (on human rights),” Macron said at a joint press conference with Sisi after the two leaders met at the ‘Elysium.
“It is more effective to have a policy of dialogue demanding than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism,” he added.
French officials dismissed the criticism, saying the government had a policy of avoiding public statements about the rights of other countries and instead raising concerns in private.
Drums rolled and trumpets sounded as the French Republican Guard cavalry earlier escorted Sissi through the center of the capital and across the Seine to the Pont des Invalides. A masked Macron greeted him at the Elysee Palace.
Nonetheless, even within the French administration, there are doubts about the close embrace of Sisi, who presided while thousands of opponents were in jail.
“I don’t know what we gain from this visit. It’s business as usual, ”said a French diplomat, deploring Macron’s position.
Between 2013 and 2017, France was Egypt’s main arms supplier. Those contracts have dried up, including contracts for more Rafale fighter jets and warships that were at an advanced stage. Diplomats say it has as much to do with funding issues as it does with France’s response to human rights concerns.
Sisi has dismissed the charges of human rights violations.
“It is not appropriate for you to present the Egyptian state and all that it does for its people and for the stability of the region as an oppressive regime,” said Sisi.
“We have nothing to fear or embarrass about it, we are a nation striving to build a future for its people under extremely difficult conditions in a region of great turmoil.
Macron said the release of the Egyptian Personal Rights Initiative (EIPR) members was an opening and that he gave Sisi a list of individuals who should be released.
“Emmanuel Macron is effectively giving a blank check to Sisi’s ruthless crackdown on civil society and turning his back on his own commitments,” said Benedicte Jeannerod, France director of Human Rights Watch, in response to Macron’s comments.