President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi basked in the glow of a François Hollande, babbling empty words in defense of human rights. The press conference Sunday evening put on by the former Egyptian general and the French president offered a vivid image of Cairo’s standing among Western leaders, despite the climate of repression that has stifled the revolutionary spirit of Tahrir. Europe is prostrate at the feet of the coup leader.
The specters of the murdered Italian grad student Giulio Regeni and the teacher Eric Lang, a Frenchman killed in Egyptian custody, hovered over Hollande and el-Sisi. But they were too dim to question the moral legitimacy of the French visit: that is, economic agreements for €1.7 billion and memoranda of understanding for future cooperation, in addition to a billion more for weapons and military satellite systems.
“We face evil forces in the region,” el-Sisi said. “They do everything they can to severely shake the stability of Egypt. They are trying to give a wrong impression of the events in Egypt. What transpires is an attempt to destroy the institutions of the state, one at a time. There is an ongoing attack on the police, then against the judicial system. Even the parliament, elected in a transparent manner by the people, is questioned.”
Those evil people are blamed for Regeni’s tortured body, and Lang’s before that, for whom Paris did not lift a finger. Evil people who want to isolate Egypt, bringing down the tight alliances in the region and with Europe, says the president. But the alliances are not in danger: Actually, today Italy is the isolated country, deprived of strong European support, and ready to step back. That could be an explanation for the silence of Italian institutions after the two recent speeches by el-Sisi, a clear challenge to efforts to discover the truth of the young researcher’s death.
The message came loud and clear to Rome, issued by the two presidents and their cabinets: el-Sisi challenges; Hollande is silent. Or rather, he stammered an apology for the coup leader president: “The Egyptian commitment to human rights should not be evaluated according to European standards, because the Middle East is a very volatile region.”
The usual argument of security versus rights? Come to think of it, it is not so far from the conflict on which the policies of European and U.S. governments have been based in recent years. Hollande reacted with weakness: “[The rights are] the freedom of press and expression and a judicial system capable of responding to these issues. Human rights are not a constraint, but a way to fight terrorism.”
France isn’t the only country. Berlin is also moving to isolate Italy. After Hollande left, the German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel expressed his support to Cairo. At the head of a delegation of more than 120 German businessmen (like their French colleagues, interested in numerous trade agreements), Gabriel met with the Egyptian President on Monday and left behind unimaginable statements: “I think you have an amazing president. Egypt is on the path of democratization,” he told the Egyptian people. To his small credit, he did say he was concerned about the Regeni case and about reports of “increasing violations of human rights.”
But above all, Gabriel explained that Berlin is not planning any restrictions on the supply of arms to Egypt, thus sinking the resolution of the European Parliament, which called on member states to “suspend all forms of security cooperation and assistance to the Egyptian authorities until their security apparatus stops promoting violent extremism through systematic violations committed with impunity.” No coincidence that one of the objectives of the state visit is the combined strengthening of security at the Egyptian borders.
In the background remains the deafening absence of cooperation with the Italian investigators. Saturday, according to the newspaper Al Watan, in an interview on al-Hayat TV channel, the spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Ahmed Abu Zeid, asked Italy to relax what he called “political pressure” over the too-thin investigative file given to the Roman prosecutor by the Egyptian counterpart at their failed summit in Italy. The following day, Abu Zeid denied it: “I just asked the Italian side to relax the political pressure and let the relevant teams continue their mission.”
Just like in the increasingly dictatorial Turkish regime, the academics are the only ones taking a stand: On Monday, 100 British and U.S. scholars wrote a letter to President Barack Obama calling for the suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt.