For days before the visit of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to France, on the sixth of December, international media and observers geared up to press the French president Emmanuel Macron into discussing one main topic with the Egyptian president. This topic is not about the joint efforts of Egypt and France on regional crises, such as the tensions in Eastern Mediterranean and the endless troubles of the Middle East and North Africa. Even, it is not about the challenges facing the world, these days, such as fighting terrorism and the health and economic consequences of the Coronavirus. Rather, the pressing topic that preoccupied the Egyptian-French summit was the status of human rights in Egypt.
“I will not place conditions on our economic and defense cooperation with Egypt because of these issues (i.e., human rights),” responded President Macron to a journalist who asked him, during his press conference with President El-Sisi, on whether France could link economic and military investments in Egypt to conditions related to improving human rights situation. “The policy of dialogue is better than the policy of boycott, which harms our ability to fight terrorism and our work for regional stability. Setting conditions will not allow progress in regional matters. Rather, it cuts off the discussion between us, and weakens one of our important allies in our war on terror and for the stability of the region, and it will not help in developing human right.”
Undoubtedly, this pragmatic response by President Macron frustrated a number of those who rely on stirring up the human rights issue whenever they desire to exert a political pressure on Egypt. They include biased media and human rights organizations with links to countries that hold animosity towards the Egyptian state and President El-Sisi, personally, such as Qatar and Turkey, because of his role in discrediting the Muslim Brotherhood and overthrowing them outside the political arena of Egypt and the entire Middle East, in 2013.
In response to the same question, President El-Sisi noted that “the Egyptian state has been fighting an extremist Islamic organization that has been wreaking havoc in Egypt for over 90 years (in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood). It is not fair to label the Egyptian state as an authoritarian regime because we are fighting extremism.”
Nevertheless, no one could claim that Egypt is an ideal country wherein human rights principles are fully guaranteed and respected. Egypt suffers from chronic deficiencies on this issue, mostly inherited from the long era of corruption and tyranny under Mubarak. The Egyptian state does not deny this fact and has been sincerely working, for five years, to improve human rights conditions, amidst countless political and security challenges. Despite the delay on reforming civil and political rights, Egypt witnessed a leap on improving economic, social, and cultural rights, thanks to new legislative amendments and national projects targeting improving health, housing, and security conditions, as well as protecting freedom of religion.
For the foreseeable future, human rights issues shall remain a daunting issue in Egypt’s relations with the world. However, the real obstacle which is preventing Egypt from making tangible progress on the civil and political rights agenda, is not the lack of will or lack of sincerity by the political leadership. The essence of the problem lies in the poor choices the government makes in relation to the mechanisms used and individuals entrusted with handling this extremely complicated portfolio of advancing human rights. This is what Egypt needs to fix, as a first urgent and proper step, towards improving human rights conditions.