Macron urged to pressure Sisi during Paris visit
French President Emmanuel Macron hosts Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi from Sunday for a three-day state visit, with France facing calls from activists that Egypt should not be "indulged" despite the close alliance between Cairo and Paris.
Egypt and France have enjoyed an increasingly close relationship under the authoritarian rule of former army general Sisi, with common interests in the Middle East and a shared suspicion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Sisi will dine with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday evening before holding talks with Macron at the Elysee on Monday. Meetings with other political leaders are due to stretch into Tuesday.
France's close relationship with Egypt at a time when Cairo stands accused of serial human rights violations has concerned activists, who want Macron to make the issue central to the discussions.
"French diplomacy has, at the highest levels, long indulged President al-Sisi's brutal repression of any form of dissent," a dozen human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said in a joint statement ahead of his visit.
"It is now or never for President Macron to stand up for his self-declared commitment to promote human rights in Egypt."
The statement said that as well as being Egypt's main arms supplier by selling warships and fighter jets, the French government has also allowed French companies to provide Cairo with surveillance and crowd control tools.
"We are amazed that France is rolling out the red carpet for a dictator when there are more than 60,000 prisoners of conscience today in Egypt," Antoine Madelin, international advocacy director of the FIDH, told AFP.
Conflicting signals from Macron
Sisi became Egypt’s president in 2014 after he led a military coup against Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in 2013.
Sisi then presided over a brutal crackdown targeting not only Islamist supporters of the ousted Morsi, but also leftists and liberals.
Concern over Sisi's visit to Paris was amplified when three Egyptian activists were arrested last month following a meeting with foreign ambassadors.
However, following an international campaign backed by celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson, all three campaigners from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have been freed.
Rights NGOs are set to hold a protest outside the French parliament on Tuesday denouncing the "strategic partnership" between France and Egypt.
A French presidential official, who asked not to be named, described the release of the trio as a "positive signal" and emphasised that rights issues would be brought up by Macron.
Macron had raised human rights concerns during a visit to Cairo in January 2018, calling for "respect for individual freedoms, dignity of everyone and the rule of law."
However, the French leader had been criticised by rights groups after saying in October 2017 during a visit by Sisi to Paris that he would not "lecture" Egypt on liberties.
Those jailed in Egypt include Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French national Celine Lebrun, and held since July 2019 on accusations of acting against the state.
"His case is completely empty and the accusations are devoid of any proof," Lebrun told AFP, saying she had only been able to speak to her husband twice by phone.
Shared hostility to Turkey
Both Macron and Sisi are wary of the regional ambitions of Turkey under Erdogan which has intervened militarily in the conflicts in Libya and Syria and sought to bolster the Turkish footprint in Africa.
The Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Morsi was a close ally of Erdogan and the Turkish president has repeatedly expressed dismay over his ousting.
Tensions between Ankara and Paris grew further in the run-up to the visit with Erdogan saying that France should "get rid of" Macron "as soon as possible".
A French official said that France's priority is the reinforcement of the "strategic partnership" with the most populous country in the Arab world which he characterized as a centre of "stability" in a "volatile" region.