North Africa, West Asia

How the West supports Egypt’s military dictatorship

While human rights groups condemn President al-Sisi’s regime, he receives European arms deals, American aid, and even France’s greatest honour.

Maged Mandour
8 January 2021, 12.01am
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Elysee presidential Palace on 7 December 2020
Blondet Eliot/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Last month, during a controversial three-day state visit, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received France’s highest award, the Legion d'Honneur, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Days earlier, at a joint press conference with Sisi on 7 December, French President Emmanuel Macron was pressed on France’s arms exports to Egypt, considering the country’s deteriorating human rights situation. Macron categorically stated that such exports and security cooperation are not conditional on human rights, highlighting the importance of the military regime in Cairo as an ally in the fight against “terrorism”.

France is Egypt’s top supplier of arms, and there is considerable evidence that some of these arms are used in the direct repression of dissent. Some of these deals are even financed by French government loans.

During the visit, the Egyptian dictator and Macron engaged in a bizarre debate on the primacy of religious over human values. Sisi stated that “the rank of religious values is much higher than human values... they are holy and above all other values”, to which Macron responded: “We consider human values are superior to everything else. That’s what was brought by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the foundation of the universalism of human rights.”

In the aftermath of Sisi’s visit, the Italian journalist and writer Corrado Augias returned his Legion d'Honneur in protest at the award being handed to the Egyptian dictator. Days later, on the 19 December, the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the human rights abuses in Egypt. The document urged member states to impose targeted sanctions against the regime, though EU resolutions are non-binding and European states continue to sell surveillance equipment used in the violent repression of dissent in Egypt. No action has been taken to that effect.

Western support for autocrats is not a new phenomenon and is part and parcel of a long and sordid history of colonial and post-colonial violence. This violence is not only directed against distant populations, but also has its tentacles in European society, mostly against immigrants, the poor and the marginalised.

Another French President, another Arab dictator

Fifteen years earlier, on 27 October 2005, police in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois were investigating a reported break-in at a building site. Believing they were being chased by the police and wanting to avoid interrogation, three young men of immigrant background hid in a nearby electric power station. Two were electrocuted and died, the third was badly burned. This ushered in three weeks of rioting by marginalised youth of immigrant backgrounds, which started in the suburbs of Paris but spread across the country.

Western support for autocrats is not a new phenomenon and is part and parcel of a long and sordid history of colonial and post-colonial violence

The response of the then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who would two years later become the French president, was harsh. He immediately declared a zero-tolerance policy, and called the rioters “racaille”, a derogatory term that roughly corresponds to scum or rabble. This was not Sarkozy’s only such controversial remark. In November 2016, when he was running for the conservative party nomination for another presidential term, he said that Muslim and Jewish children who do not eat pork should simply have a double portion of chips when the school canteen serves ham, claiming: “ This is the Republic!”.

In October 2020, Sarkozy was charged with corruption and illegal campaign financing over claims that in 2007 he received millions of dollars from another Arab dictator, Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi, to fund his presidential run. Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing, and remains popular among many conservative French voters.

Business as usual

On 10 December 2020, while Sisi was in Paris, Italian prosecutors declared their intent to charge four members of the Egyptian security apparatus with the kidnapping and murder of an Italian PhD student. Giulio Regeni, who was studying at Cambridge University, had been researching Egypt’s trade unions when he was kidnapped on 25 January 2016 in Cairo. Suspected of involvement in anti-regime activities, he had been held in a villa and tortured for days. As one of the witnesses, a former officer stated, “in the room there were metal chains used to tie people up. The upper half of his body was naked, and there were signs of torture. He was speaking in his language, he was delirious”.

The cause of death was a violent blow to the head, on 1 February. When his body was found two days later, he had cigarette burns and broken teeth. The Egyptian regime denies the involvement of the four men and blames a criminal gang for the murder. In the years since Regeni’s death, Italy has continued to sell arms to the Egyptian regime and invest billions in Egyptian natural gas fields.

Outside the law

In April 2017, a leaked video showed the Egyptian military engaged in extrajudicial killings in North Sinai, including the execution of an unarmed man and a 17-year-old boy at point blank range. The military has denied these claims, stating that the murdered men were “terrorists”, killed as part of a gun battle, the same ones used as a justification for Macron’s support for the Egyptian dictator. This incident is part of larger pattern of killings; there is considerable evidence that these gun battles are staged and that the men were, indeed, executed.

Reports by human rights groups claim that since Egypt’s 2013 coup, 3,185 civilians have been killed by the nation’s security forces, outside the frame of the law. This includes 766 who died in detention centres. Between October and November 2020, Sisi’s regime executed 57 people, including 15 men convicted in cases of political violence.

The UN has urged a halt to the executions, amid allegations of widespread torture, but its requests are not heeded. The largest arms suppliers to the regime are France, Russia and the United States.

Subsidising the arms industry

On 14 January 2020, Mustafa Kassem an Egyptian American died in an Egyptian prison after a prolonged hunger strike. Kassem was arrested in August 2013, and held for five years in pre-trial detention, before being sentenced in 2018, in a highly politicised trial, with 700 others. As Kassem languished in prison, US President Donald Trump was caught on tape joking that Sisi was “his favourite dictator”.

On 8 January 2018, Khaled Hassan, another American citizen was kidnapped by security forces in Alexandria, Egypt. He disappeared for four months. Hassan told Human Rights Watch he was tortured and raped twice while in custody. His arrest was not publicly acknowledged and his family knew of his whereabouts only when he finally appeared in front of the military prosecutor in May. Hassan’s ordeal is part of a systemic policy of torture by the security services, which includes, beatings, electrocutions, and sexual assault. The United States still provides Egypt with $1.4 billion in annual aid, mostly for military purposes. This aid is then used to purchase American arms, in essence, subsiding the American arms industry.

Reports by human rights groups claim that since Egypt’s 2013 coup, 3,185 civilians have been killed by the nation’s security forces, outside the frame of the law

The stories of the French youths, Giulio Regeni, those in Sinai, and Mustafa Kassem and Khaled Hassan are part of a global pattern of state violence, interconnected and anchored in economic exploitation, and social deprivation. Opposition to this pattern results in further violence, and a resistance is still unable to provide a cohesive alternative to the current order. As Gramsci said: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

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