February 13th marked the sixth commemoration of Operation Sirli, an Egyptian military campaign close to the Libyan border in the Western Desert. The famous Egypt Papers revealed that French intelligence officers, pilots, and technicians escorted the Egyptian Army.
This was only one of several other collaborative operations between the two countries. The focus of many is to counter terrorist threats. It is one of the essential pillars of their bilateral relations.
Yet, the deep cooperation that achieved additional leaps when General Abdul-Fattah Sisi assumed the presidency in 2014 failed to attain any international standing. True, it had positive regional effects and improved bilateral relations, but Egypt directly cannot now alter the balance of power or advance its proper position globally.
France is politically irrelevant in Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Gaza. Its relations with Algeria fall under the old boundaries of colonial history. Its ties with Saudi Arabia have never peaked to the extent that Riyadh would give up on its historical strategic relations with Washington. Would anyone?
France is one of the world’s largest manufacturers and exporters of military equipment. A partner willing to sign enormously huge arms contracts is tremendously beneficial for Paris. As described by President Emmanuel Macron, Egypt has risen to become a strategic and “exceptional” partner for France.
Between 2016 and 2020, French arms exports increased by 44 percent compared to the period stretching from 2011 to 2015. Egypt’s spending on defense placed France second for imports, with India first.
Cairo purchased the expensive high-end French Rafale jets in two mega arms deals in 2015 (worth 5.2 billion Euros) and 2021 (worth 4.5 billion Euros). Negotiating new arms deals continues to reflect this strategic partnership.
France’s economic interests in Egypt are not restricted to arms deals. French companies have executed mega projects in different sectors in the country. A phenomenon Sisi adores as he regularly inaugurates new projects in infancy ceremonial occasions sitting posing on a beautiful couch.
The Cairo Metro construction, the Nile Sat satellite launch, the mobile network installation, and the thermal power station construction are a few examples of such works.
Like other Western capitals, Paris has overlooked accusations of human rights abuses in Egypt. Except for issuing occasional articulate press releases on such violations, few concrete steps have been taken.
This has always been the West’s view of Egypt. Washington overlooked a similar accusation to the Mubarak regime (1981- 2011) for almost thirty consecutive years. If political interests are attained, turning a blind eye is standard policy.
Combatting political Islam is another area of cooperation between Paris and Cairo. Both countries supported the East-based government in Libya against the UN-recognized government based in West Libya. The latter happened to be backed by Turkey. Neither Macron nor Sisi would appreciate the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Libya.
Macron described the religious standing of Islam as a “religion in crisis.” At the same time, Sisi called for an Islamic renewal as the French General Assembly issued an anti-radicalism bill that increased the authority’s oversight on mosques, schools, and sports clubs.
Sisi aimed to diffuse any potential rise of new social or religious platforms that might hinder his grip on power in the country. France’s contribution to the Alexandria Library as part of its cultural standing is not a coincidence as well. The French- Egyptian love story dates back to the pre-French revolutionary wars and the Napoleon expedition to Egypt in 1798, staying until 1801.
The emperor accompanied 160 scholars and scientists who worked for years to produce a milestone research book entitled: Description of Egypt. It first appeared in 1809, with the 20th volume published in 1829.
Put history aside, and the present seems far more complicated. The impediments to assuming broader roles for both countries are numerous, but they can still develop their mutual ties and take it further.