International rights organisations have gathered in the French capital to highlight Egypt’s human rights abuses, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is set to arrive for a two-day visit.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and the France-based International Federation for Human Rights were among the groups scheduled to speak at a news conference in Paris on Monday.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch called on France to “stop ignoring serious abuses, including Egyptian security services’ widespread and systematic use of torture”.
“The dire situation of human rights in Egypt can’t be swept under the carpet any longer, despite French interests,” Benedicte Jeannerod, the organization’s France director, told Al Jazeera.
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“France is one of Egypt’s major partners, both at political, security, military and commercial levels, and should use this close relationship and condition it to tangible improvements of the human rights situation.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who took office in May, is scheduled to meet Sisi for the first time on Tuesday. Among the topics to be discussed are ways to enhance economic, trade and military ties.
Last week, after criticism from rights groups who oppose France’s policy on Egypt, Macron’s office said that the issue of human rights abuses would be addressed during his meeting with Sisi.
The two countries have maintained diplomatic relations over the years, but built stronger ties after Sisi came to power in 2013.
Hussein Bayoum, an Egyptian campaigner with Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera that the objective of Monday’s press conference was to bring the discussion about Egypt’s human rights abuses to France at a time when bilateral relations are at a high.
“The crackdown that is ongoing in Egypt right now would not have been possible if the international community wasn’t willing to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in Egypt,” Bayoum said.
“We have high hopes from the French government in taking a more active role with regards to urging the Egyptian government to … cut down on the crackdown against Egypt’s civil society, its journalists and activists.”
During his presidential campaign, Macron suggested that he would condition weapons sales on respect for human rights.
According to Allison McManus, research director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Macron is in a position to take a strong stand for human rights in Egypt, which “marks an opportunity for activists and civil society to push for this”.
However, he is “riding on the tails of heavy critique of the Hollande [France’s former president] government’s outright support for Sisi’s war on terror”.
With both sides concerned about the political void in Libya and the threat of armed groups in Egypt and across the region, Macron’s administration has said that it plans on dealing with human rights abuses not by criticising countries, but by working privately with heads of state on a “case by case basis”.
Rights groups have accused Paris of remaining silent about increasing rights violations as Sisi prepares to run for re-election in 2018.
Egypt, notorious for its human rights abuses and declining economy, has been among France’s top weapons customers, and in 2015, signed a deal to buy military equipment worth approximately $6bn.
Human Rights Watch has accused France of violating requirements imposed by the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, mandating that EU countries suspend arms exports that could be used for “internal repression”.
Egypt has long enjoyed military and economic aid from countries including the US. Sisi’s visit to France comes just days after at least 52 Egyptian police officers and conscripts were killed in a gun battle during a Friday raid on a hideout of fighters in the western desert.
Egypt has been fighting armed groups in the Sinai, a volatile desert region that has been a hotbed for various groups, including an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Confrontations between fighters and Egyptian security forces have killed hundreds of soldiers since 2013.
Shortly after Macron took office, he reiterated France’s support for Egypt’s “counterterrorism” campaign. Since April, when deadly church attacks killed nearly 50 people, Egypt has been in a state of emergency that grants the president exceptional powers to censor, monitor and halt forms of communication.
Human rights groups have also been critical of an Egyptian law that heavily regulates the operations of 47,000 non-governmental organisations and charities, and of ongoing attacks against press freedom. In June, Sisi’s government blocked 64 news websites that were not aligned to state media’s narrative, with authorities claiming to be combating “terrorism and extremism”.
Sisi’s government has also increasingly silenced opposition candidates likely to run against him in the upcoming presidential race.
As a result, McManus said, “there is little belief that Sisi will be challenged in the next presidential campaign”.
Ex-presidential candidate and opposition leader Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer who had suggested he might run for president in 2018, was arrested in May pending investigations. He was the main lawyer to bring a case against the government for agreeing to sign the controversial Tiran and Sanafir deal.
In recent weeks, Egypt also launched a major crackdown on the gay community, arresting at least 57 people in response to a rare show of public support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in the country.
By: Farah Najjar