Dealing with dictators: France and Egypt's blood-stained pact

Dealing with dictators: France and Egypt's blood-stained pact
Analysis: France has a history of arms deals in the Middle East, but a recent sale of Rafale aircraft has put the country's commerce under the spotlight.
9 min read
17 February, 2015
Egypt is the first foreign buyer of the French Rafale aircraft [AFP]

Egypt's revolution of 2011 showed a country that was not a model of stability that some, and in particular France, hoped for. But four years after the departure of Hosni Mubarak, and despite a return to dictatorship, relations between France and Egypt appear to be closer than ever.

One sign of the warming relations is the $6 billion arms deal recently signed between Cairo and Paris, making Egypt the first foreign country to purchase the French-made Rafale multipurpose jet fighter.

The deal signed on 16 February in Cairo is a clear indication that relations between France and Egypt are back to normal.

It includes the sale and delivery of 24 Rafale fighter jets, two Gowind frigates and one Fremm frigate - as well as a batch of air-to-air MBDA defence missiles made by Airbus Group. Paris has clearly turned the page since the "Arab Spring".

The Egyptian army's interest in the Rafale jet is nothing new. After the start of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and the departure of the president, Hosni Mubarak, the army that was then officially in power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), reportedly approached France about the prospect of purchasing Rafale jets.

At the head of an empire whose revenues and budget are both unknown and outside the control of parliament, the Egyptian army has huge sums of money at its disposal. But at the time, Dassault, the maker of the Rafale, did not take its prospective buyer seriously.

Things changed when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who ran the armed forces up until his election, became president in May 2014. On a visit to Paris in November 2014 he was received with great fanfare, and the subject of buying military jets was back on the table.

This time though, he was the one laying down the conditions: Cairo does not have the means to pay for this order, and so the French state should guarantee half of the order (over $3.4 billion) through Coface (Compagnie Française d’Assurance pour le Commerce Extérieur), France's export credit agency.

French banks - reportedly a conglomerate of Crédit Agricole, BNP Paribas and Société Générale - will make a loan to Cairo to cover the rest.

This deal would be the first of many, the French government hoped, but it would be far from being the victory for French manufacturing that was touted by those involved in the sale.

In terms of jobs, DCNS has announced a transfer of skills to outside locations. No jobs will be created in France. The Rafale programme - already supported by the state, and therefore the taxpayer - is an industrial failure. It is essentially the French taxpayer who is indirectly bearing the costs of Egypt's order. 

Business as usual

In France, the sale and export of weapons and armaments is, in theory, prohibited - and permission can only granted to arms deals after a routine investigation has been conducted.

In this case, the decision was made by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, on the advice of a commission led by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Emmanuel Macron, minister of the economy.

The terms of these transactions are not known, but the Rafale deal forms the latest development in a long-standing military relationship between the two countries, a relationship which stretches back to the sale of Mirage jets after the war with Israel in June 1967.

Since the Egyptian revolution, Egypt has experienced massive social and political unrest, including under the rule of President Sisi. Today, French companies are prospering under this climate of repression.

Egypt deal shores up French arms industry. Read more here

Between 2011 and 2013, Egyptian orders of French weaponry increased by nearly 50 percent - from $49.1 million to $73.5 million. French armaments and technology are even understood to be used to break up political gatherings.

On 14 August 2013, Renault vehicles were used to evict Mohamed Morsi sympathisers from a sit-in. More than 1,000 civilians were killed on that day, and the European Union decided to suspend the export of arms to Cairo.

The Rabaa massacre caused French President François Hollande to summon the Egyptian ambassador and communicate his "deepest concern" to those in power. Fabius called on Ban Ki-Moon and his colleagues in the United Nations for "an urgent, international reaction" demanding "an immediate halt to the repression".

But at the same time, France supported requests from its manufacturers and went ahead with its arms deals. The European and international treaties that France had ratified relating to the sale and export of weaponry, clearly stipulates the criteria that must be met for each arms sale.

This includes a compulsory evaluation of "the attitude of the recipient country in terms of human rights", and to "refuse permission to export if there is a manifest risk that the technology or the military equipment are used for internal repression".

France must also be conscious of the client country's economic situation and that such should be consistent with its orders. Egypt did not meet any of these conditions.

Favouring dictatorship

Nicolas Sarkozy had essentially made Mubarak the "guarantor of stability in the region", as co-president of the Grand Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) project.

Sarkozy and his government initially reacted cautiously to the beginning of the uprisings in 2011 and to the ousting of the Egyptian leader.

Claiming to be not interfering in the domestic issues of another country, France kept its distance and simply stated that it, "was on the side of the Egyptian people" and "its legitimate democratic aspirations".

For France, Egypt remained a key player in Syrian and Libyan relations and the Israeli-Palestinian question.

Michèle Alliot-Marie, minister of foreign affairs at the time the revolution began, repeated this constantly, as did her successor Alain Juppé, and Fabius.

     Resistance to the new order from the ancien regimes caused France to fall back on its old reflexes.

When the Arab Spring swept through the region and the situation became clearer, France back-peddled: "For too long, we thought that authoritarian regimes were the only strongholds against extremism in the Arab world," said Juppé in April 2011.

But the resistance to the new order from the ancien regimes caused France to fall back on its old reflexes. This was particularly evident when France refused to refer to the events of July 2013, when the army overthrew Morsi, as a coup d’état despite widespread international acceptance of the term.

Democratic transition

From then on, when France was questioned if Morsi was the legitimate leader of Egypt, following massive demonstrations against his rule in June 2013, Paris replied, "We cannot, unless we completely abandon our rules, say, that when there is a groundswell of popular sentiment, those who were elected are no longer elected."

Paris insisted that that the failing economy was the reason for the discontent, and "took note" of the ousting of the first civil president elected a year earlier, promoting the importance of new elections.

While Hollande spoke on 5 July of "failure", diplomacy pushed him to search for the right term in describing what had just happened, a "military coup d'état". He spoke of "changes" whilst specifying "we will work with these new authorities with the clear aim of pursuing democratic transition".

This term, "democratic transition", that Paris found so hard to muster in January 2011, now comes back onto the lips of French policy makers, again and again.

A month and a half later, one of the biggest massacres of protesters in recent history took place in Cairo's Rabaa Square, under Egypt's military-led regime. But still nothing changed Paris' position.  

Paris greeted Sisi's election with typical detachment, stating: "France wishes him success in accomplishing in his important mission. We encourage Egypt to follow a process of political transition towards respected civil institutions in the rule of law, human rights and public freedoms."

Since then, relations between the two countries have continued to strengthen.

While Egypt was under Morsi's rule, France had claimed to be particularly concerned about respect for rights of minorities including women and Copts, and about freedom of the press, human rights and the opposition.

Now, Paris only makes tentative condemnations, if at all, about the violations committed by the regime. This is despite repression in Egypt being at its highest level for 30 years, according to NGOs such as Amnesty International.

The great pomp and circumstance that welcomed "France's friend" to Paris, according to the words of President Hollande last November, confirms that France is maintaining the same policy as before the uprisings.

What does France hold up as proof that Egypt is on the right path? Voters elected Sisi by a large majority - about 97 percent of a vote marred by low participation and a widespread boycott, particularly among young people.

The forthcoming legislative elections in March are also indicative of stability, say the French authorities. Although there is an electoral calendar and formal commitments to the constitution, the elections have been delayed once and risk being pushed back again.

In addition, any form of opposition is almost impossible and very severely reprimanded.

Forgetting its self-critique of 2011, Paris now counts on this "ally" that it considers "on the path to democracy" - as it once said of Mubarak - to lead the "war against terrorism". This is a war exploited by the authorities to destroy domestic opposition.   

An economic deal

For the Egyptian authorities, the definition of "terrorism" is a very broad one: it firstly refers to the Muslim Brotherhood - the country's largest opposition political force. Hundreds of members of the movement have been sentenced to death, and Egypt holds the 2014 world record for the number of death sentences issued.

Secondly, Sisi has had unprecedentedly good relations with the Israeli government for an Egyptian president - and Tel Aviv has supported him from the outset.

Part of this is because Sisi makes no distinction between the Brotherhood, Hamas or the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis).

But this war also targets protesters, journalists, students and activists, and Egypt's new laws make all demonstrations practically illegal.

As a result, the 6 April Youth Movement, one of the spearheads in the fight for equality and an essential ingredient in the toppling of Mubarak, are now classed as "terrorist groups" under Egyptian law.

Its founders are detained and have been sentenced to life imprisonment. If the Muslim Brotherhood remains the prime target for the Egyptian authorities, this is also true of France. Manuel Valls effectively said of this that "we must fight against the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood". 

This declaration that took on a new meaning three days later, when the deal was sealed for the Rafale aircraft.

Ten days ago, the Socialist Party declared, "anyone in opposition to the Sisi regime has become the target of a repression that is even harsher than under Mubarak's regime".

Now the party is congratulating Hollande and the government for the first foreign sale of the Rafale aircraft.

In 2007, the Socialists expressed anger over the welcome afforded to Muammar Gaddafi - while Sarkozy hoped that his visit would allow them to "sign a number of economic agreements" with Libya.

Members of the Socialist Party denounced Sarkozy, calling Gaddafi a "dictator" coming "with his petrodollars to buy arms". This was articulated by its first secretary at the time, one François Hollande.

Four years later, France continues to talk about democracy, human rights and of freedom for Egyptians and all Arabs - though talk is what it remains, and empty words prevail.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.