Macron and Sisi's authoritarian embrace

Macron and Sisi's authoritarian embrace
Comment: The Egyptian and French presidents are attempting to control the meaning of Islam to enact their domestic, authoritarian agendas, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
09 Dec, 2020
Macron said he would not tie French arms sales to Egyptian human rights reforms [Getty]
The trumpets sounded and the drums rolled as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was escorted through the centre of Paris by the French Republican Guard cavalry yesterday towards the Elysee Palace, where he was greeted by President Emmanuel Macron.

The Egyptian tyrant is in France on a state visit, principally to discuss French arms sales to his regime.

Discarding the pretence of decency, Macron shot down any notion of allowing Sisi's vast human rights abuses to get in the way of shifting arms to the despot. "I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights]", Macron said. 

"Disagreements" is a funny way for him to put it. Since 2013, specifically the brutal coup against democracy that brought Sisi to power and claimed the lives and freedom of tens of thousands of Egyptians, France has been the largest supplier of arms to Sisi's totalitarian order

The French president continued: "It is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue [with Sisi] than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one our partners in the fight against terrorism". 

Emmanuel Macron knows that Sisi isn't "fighting terrorism". Though he wasn't yet president, Macron knows perfectly well that when Sisi murdered over 1,000 innocents in a single day at Rabaa and Nadha, and that he did so because the people in those squares were protesting for democracy and liberty. In fact, it has been found that French arms were used by the Egyptian security forces during that unprecedented massacre. 

Macron's 'anti-extremism' is also about keeping French Muslims in their place

Macron must also know that the over 60,000 political prisoners locked away in the squalid torture dungeons of the Scorpion Prison complex are not in any sense "terrorists", but human and civil rights activists, journalists, democrats, social media critics and people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He is certainly aware of the recent high profile crimes in Sisi's Egypt, such as the arrest and imprisonment of three human rights activists from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), as well as the mass executions of up to 91 prisoners - including political prisoners - across October and November alone.

This picture, one of constant state terror, has defined Sisi's Egypt and the counterrevolutionary transition of the Egyptian state towards totalitarianism. This is what Macron wants people to believe is "fighting terrorism".  

And it's here that Macron blatantly reveals the true nature of his own domestic crusade against "Islamism" or what he calls ideologies that fuel "Islamic separatism" - and in turn radicalisation and terrorism - in France. 

The French president isn't actually concerned with Salafi-jihadism and the real factors that fuel it; in fact, his passionate support for a totalitarian monster like Sisi runs entirely contrary to this idea.

It's not just the fact that a tyrant like Sisi has obliterated Islamic democrats who were entirely antithetical to jihadist forces like Islamic State group, but his rule has seen an expansion and consolidation of these forces. In fact, in the Sinai, Sisi's blitzkrieg methods have allowed IS to gain a foothold in the region, with parts of the peninsula now effectively controlled by the group.

Read more: Human rights activists protest in Paris over Egyptian President Sisi's France visit

Macron - in the traditions of both French colonialism in the Islamic Near East, and the racist, neo-imperialist assumptions of political realism - considers the best condition of Muslims to be one where they are ruled over by brutal "secular" regimes. They will ruthlessly police the racist walls of Fortress Europe, stopping mostly Muslim and non-white refugees and asylum seekers from getting to France.

On a domestic level, this has resulted in Macron's attempted legislative assault on French Muslims, essentially casting Islam in France as an alien and regressive ideology, incompatible with France's state ideology of secularism, known as "laïcité".

Macron seeks to control and ideologically undermine what French Muslims believe, with him calling for a "French Islam", a term that makes the incontrovertibly Islamophobic assumption that all Muslims, in their current "natural" state, are ideologically dangerous and ultimately non-French. 

Macron's alleged "cure" for the problem of "Islamic extremism" in France is strikingly Islamophobic itself. In the same way that Sisi's totalitarian order in Egypt is about eradicating an Islamic or indeed secular consciousness among Egyptians that places an emphasis on democracy, liberty and equality, Macron's "anti-extremism" is also about keeping French Muslims in their place. 

Sisi's mass brutality against Egyptians and his own attempts to control the meaning of Islam in Egypt boost the logics of Islamic extremism. Macron's attempts to keep French Muslims in a state of unending institutional racism, as well as targeted discrimination under the guise of secularism (the hijab laws being a potent example of this), do the very same. 

French society in general is in the grip of a form of Islamophobia that masquerades as secularism

In fact, the kind of Muslim voices in France who might oppose tyrants like Sisi and point out their role in fuelling extremism, are the ones that Macron seeks to silence.  

This interplay between French foreign policy in the Muslim Middle East and its domestic Islamophobic status quo is clear for all to see, but it goes much beyond Macron. 

Macron's embrace of a tyrant like Sisi highlights that the main extremist threat in France is not these horrific instances of jihadist-inspired terror, but rampant and ravenous Islamophobia. It's also worth remembering that the main dynamic in the last French presidential election was between the advertised centrist Macron, and the neo-Nazi Islamophobe Marine Le Pen, another admirer of Sisi.

This is of course part of the reason why Macron indulges in Islamophobic incitement and policy, but French society in general is in the grip of a form of Islamophobia that masquerades as secularism.

One of the worst examples of this occurred a few days after the Rabaa massacre. Charlie Hebdo, whose racist caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad have been lionised by Macron and projected onto government buildings, reacted to the events at Rabaa by depicting a gormless Egyptian Muslim being shot to death while holding a Quran. The caption reads "The Quran is s**t, it does not stop bullets." 

This is the magazine that Macron claims embodies the glorious secularism of France.  But it is not secularism at all – it is simply the French majority laughing at the murder of Muslims, ones who died at the hands of the very forces that French state vehemently supports.

Macron's recent embrace of Sisi and his open dismissal of the tyrant's treatment of Egyptians is both a product and legitimisation of this viciously Islamophobic discourse. 

In this dynamic, whether it's Macron's Islamophobic turn, the boosting of the fascist Marine Le Pen in France, Sisi's continued brutality and French support for it, or the fostering of Salafi-jihadism - extremism is the only winner. 

Beyond the peculiarities of French Islamophobia, Macron's example demonstrates again that democrats, in the face of rising movements of authoritarianism and anti-egalitarianism, cannot support equality at home while supporting authoritarianism abroad.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.