Trump’s ‘Favorite Dictator’ Finds a New Friend in Macron

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Emmanuel Macron conspicuously sidestepped an opportunity to hold Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi accountable for his government’s flagrant violations of human rights. Despite strong opposition from rights groups, the French president invited the Egyptian leader for a state visit. Then on Monday, during a joint press conference with Sisi at the Elysee Palace, he said that France would not make economic cooperation with — or arms sales to — Egypt conditional on human rights.

Instead, Macron talked up Egypt’s counterterrorism record, neglecting the fact that Sisi’s government routinely subjects rights activists to terrorism trials and puts political opponents and critics on “terrorism watch-lists.”

Macron’s statement amounted to a carte blanche for the Egyptian general-turned-president, and there was more than a little irony in its timing. Sisi’s visit to Paris coincided with the decision by the European Union to adopt a sanctions regime, modeled after the Magnitsky Act in the U.S., apparently for use against chronic abusers of human rights.

They don’t come any more chronic than Sisi. Since seizing power in 2013, he has presided over an assault on human rights that is excessive even by Egyptian standards. As Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other groups, have documented in excruciating detail, Sisi’s government has carried out a sustained campaign against political opponents, journalists, critics and rights activists. Thousands have been jailed, many have been tortured; there have been mass executions and suspicious deaths in prison.

Macron’s priorities are to restore France’s position as Egypt’s largest supplier of arms, and to keep its authoritarian president onside in his feud with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sisi has his own grievances against Erdogan, most prominently the Turkish intervention in the Libyan civil war, which turned the tide against the side backed by Egypt. France may also need Egypt’s indulgence for its own counterterrorism activities in northern and sub-Saharan Africa.

This was enough for Macron to declare Sisi his “friend.” Even if that appellation doesn’t convey the same warmth of the sobriquet bestowed by President Donald Trump, who called Sisi his “favorite dictator,” it will nonetheless give Egypt’s president a great deal of comfort.

And not a moment too soon. With the Trump presidency in its final weeks (knock wood), Sisi is in urgent need of a new favorite president. There are growing calls for President-elect Biden to take a tougher stand on Egypt’s human-rights violations. It will not have escaped Sisi’s attention that Antony Blinken, likely the next U.S. Secretary of State, expressed concern over the recent arrests of three prominent rights activists in the country. That they were released after an international outcry underscores Sisi’s vulnerability to this line of attack.

Nor can Sisi depend on Egypt’s other patron, Saudi Arabia, to intervene on his behalf with the next administration. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will need what political capital he has in Washington to salvage his own reputation with the Biden team.

Sisi will also welcome any French assistance in Libya, and in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Egyptian ambitions in the extraction and transport of hydrocarbons run up against Turkish plans. Egypt, like Greece, is hoping Biden will be more amenable to restraining Turkey’s aggressive exploration than Trump was (the U.S. president is, if anything, even more fond of Erdogan than of Sisi). But it is Macron who has displayed the most enthusiasm for a naval confrontation.

This mutual dependence informed the little piece of kabuki theater put on by the two presidents in Paris — in which Sisi expressed dismay at the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in France, and Macron defended free speech. Sisi didn’t care to dwell at any length on Macron’s recent, controversial statement about Islam being “a religion in crisis,” or his demand that French Muslim leaders sign a “charter of republican values.”

Turning a blind eye to faults is, after all, what friends do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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