Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s recent, six-day European tour, which took him to Germany, Serbia, and France (July 17-22), aimed to boost his image and status as a central player on the world stage despite widespread criticism of his regime’s human rights record.
Following Russia’s late-February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Egyptian economy has suffered tremendously. The costs Egypt pays for imports of basic commodities — namely wheat, cooking oil, and fuel — more than doubled. Tourism income also fell sharply, as millions of expected tourists from Russia and Ukraine did not show up. And as is typical for emerging economies — deemed less safe to international investors in an economic crisis — around $40 billion in hot money fled Egypt in recent years, attracted by high interest rates elsewhere.
Nevertheless, when Sisi visited the two key European powers, Germany and France, he clearly felt more confident than at any time since taking office eight years ago. With Europe searching for all possible alternative energy sources to make up for the drop off in Russian natural gas exports due to the war in Ukraine, Egypt is tentatively emerging as a possible future supplier.
European diplomats told MEI that Egypt lacks immediate capacity to boost its gas exports to Europe. Yet no one in Europe expects an immediate end to the conflict in Ukraine; and even when the war ends, most agree that relations with Russia will never be the same again. Therefore, Sisi clearly hoped that his discussions with German and French officials regarding energy sales would spark generous European investments in Egypt’s energy infrastructure to enable higher gas exports in the future.
In pursuit of this goal, Egypt had earlier this year signed a major deal with Israel that would allow the latter to export its gas to Europe through Egyptian pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) stations. Moreover, Egypt, France, and Israel are all members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, a regional gathering of mostly Eastern Mediterranean littoral countries whose aim is the coordination of gas production and exports.
The official reason for Sisi’s visit to Germany was to co-chair this year’s round of the “Petersberg Climate Dialogue,” considering that Egypt will host the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) Climate Change Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in November. With the Green Party being a member of the coalition government in Germany, there is special attention being paid to COP27 in Berlin. However, the United States and Europe are presently looking to increase energy output worldwide, as the heavy cost of the Russo-Ukrainian war continues to drag down the global economy. As a result, even German diplomats doubt developed countries will be ready to pledge real money in Sharm el-Sheikh to meet the announced targets aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) or coping with the effects of climate change on developing nations in Africa and Asia.
In both his visits to France and Serbia, Sisi was apparently seeking more wheat imports to compensate for the shortage of supplies Egypt traditionally procured from Ukraine. But Cairo-based German and French diplomats told this author that Sisi also sought direct European financial support to cover the sudden sharp increase in the price Egypt is paying for imports of basic commodities, especially wheat. “The problem for Egypt is that of finance. The wheat is available, but what’s short is the dollars needed to buy the wheat,” said one European diplomat. “However, what made us upset in Germany was the argument made by Egypt that you guys in the West started the war in Ukraine, and now you must help us cope with the food crisis. Our answer was, ‘No. Russia is the party to blame for this war of aggression. They are the ones who invaded a country in violation of international law.’ We are getting a little bit impatient and disappointed by the Egyptian position [on the Ukraine war].”
Adding to European annoyance was the warm reception Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received in Cairo during a recent visit. “Lavrov delivered the strongest speech against Ukraine out of the Arab League podium in Cairo. Not a single Arab country criticized Russia. They only clapped and welcomed Lavrov,” said the Cairo-based European diplomat.
European officials were certainly aware they would not hear any public criticism of Russia from Egypt, considering the allegedly close relationship between Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, Russia and Egypt historically share close relations dating back to the former Soviet era. When Sisi took office and was shunned by most Western governments, including close allies in the U.S. and Europe, for removing a democratically elected president — the late Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 — it was Russia that came in to fill the gap.
“What Sisi doesn’t like is public criticism of his human rights record,” explained one European diplomat. “He can play well with the ongoing competition among the U.S., Russia, and China, but he still needs more acceptance and recognition from the Europeans. He doesn’t get it — not to the degree he wants. And the public opinion, more in Germany than in France, is critical of Sisi’s human rights record.”
The European diplomats who followed the Egyptian president’s visits to Germany and France said that, this time, Sisi came more prepared to respond to criticism of his human rights record. “He said he launched a national dialogue with the opposition, which he plans to take seriously, approved a national human rights strategy, and provided more rights to women and the Coptic Christian community.”
However, German officials who met with Sisi, including the newly appointed Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock, and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, all insisted on making human rights a main agenda item during their meetings with the visiting Egyptian leader. “Foreign Minister Baerbock spent 50 minutes of her 90-minute meeting with Sisi speaking about human rights. That’s more than half of the meeting,” said one German diplomat. The German foreign minister also handed her Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, a list of 20 names of political prisoners Berlin would like released. They included prominent blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah, human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer, and opposition politician and lawyer Zyad el-Eleimi, among others.
The diplomat added that, recent world developments notwithstanding, Berlin was not going to drop its demands on Cairo to improve Egypt’s human rights record. Nor would Germany’s position be moderated in light of huge investments by key German companies, like Siemens, in several Egyptian infrastructure projects — namely, railways and power stations. “We thanked Sisi for the opportunity he gave to German companies to invest in Egypt, but we still want to see improvements in specific fields: the rule of law, release of political prisoners held for peacefully expressing their views, freedom of expression, and freedom of participation in political activity,” the Berlin envoy added.
President Sisi’s visit to France was not as official or pre-planned as the one he made to Germany. It only lasted one day, unlike his stops in Germany and Serbia. Yet like in Germany, Sisi asked his French hosts for support in Egypt’s ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to secure the release of yet another new loan, this one worth $3 billion. “Sisi is already getting $30 billion from rich Arab Gulf countries,” said a Cairo-based diplomat. But most of that money is not foreign assistance; it is tied to specific investments. “The issue with the IMF is not about the $3 billion; it is more about confidence in the Egyptian economy. Getting this loan from the IMF will allow other donors to provide money to Egypt,” the diplomat continued. Negotiations with the IMF have carried on since March, and Sisi asked German and French officials to convince the international financial institution’s directors not to push too hard for more structural reforms — particularly regarding subsidies. “He [Sisi] said he can’t cut the [government’s] bread subsidy, which serves 60 million-70 million Egyptians. He warned that this could lead to social unrest,” a high-level European embassy representative stated.
Relations between Sisi and his French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, are very close. The two leaders have met five times in just the past two years. Macron has also spoken out publicly to demand improvement in Egypt’s human rights record; but the language he used has usually been softer and friendlier compared to Germany or the United Kingdom, for example. According to French diplomatic sources speaking on background, former French Defense and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has developed a close relationship with Sisi on both bilateral and regional issues, facilitating the Egyptian purchase of two dozen French Rafale fighter jets as well as other weapons systems. Last year, Egypt’s military ordered 30 more Rafale jets from French defense firm Dassault Aviation in a multi-billion-dollar deal confirmed by Paris. French companies have also made substantial investments in various infrastructure projects launched by Sisi.
A July 22 statement by the French Presidential Palace that reviewed all areas of cooperation between the two countries, including regional issues such as Libya, the Middle East peace process, and Lebanon, notes, “As part of the dialogue of confidence between France and Egypt, they also addressed the issue of human rights.” A French diplomat interviewed by this author clarified, “We are of course concerned about human rights issues. But we prefer to speak about them more behind closed doors.” He added, “We have always raised certain cases of prisoners that we want to see released and called for a serious national dialogue with tangible results.”
Meanwhile, little is known about the real reason behind Sisi’s visit to Serbia and his meetings with top officials there. Egypt’s relations with the Balkan country go back to the former Yugoslavia, then led by Josip Broz Tito. The late Tito was notably a close ally of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser; together with India, they launched the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), aiming to create a united bloc of developing countries that did not want to take sides in the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Yugoslavia was the first country to provide Egypt with much-needed weapons when a new regime led by army officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Reportedly, the two countries maintained close military cooperation even after Yugoslavia disintegrated into several independent states in the 1990s.
While many Arab and Muslim countries were sharply critical of Serbia and the war crimes it committed against Muslim-majority Bosnia, Egypt notably did not join this choir. During Morsi’s time in office as Egypt’s head of state, he recognized Kosovo as an independent country, angering Belgrade. But since Sisi became president, Cairo has made no other moves on this front, even avoiding voting in favor of resolutions that would allow the breakaway nation to join international organizations.
Sisi was given a very warm welcome in Belgrade — the first visit by an Egyptian president in 35 years. Serbian army jets accompanied Sisi’s plane as he entered Serbia’s airspace coming from Germany. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Belgrade University. The two countries signed 13 cooperation agreements and memorandums of understanding (MOUs) during Sisi’s visit, including one to increase Serbian wheat exports to Egypt. Cairo and Belgrade also announced they started talks on a free trade agreement, and they held a joint economic forum with the participation of 130 Egyptian and Serbian companies.
“Perhaps it is nostalgia toward the old illusion of NAM, claiming to adopt a balanced stand in the ongoing new ‘cold war’ between the United States and Europe, on one side, and Russia and China, on the other side,” mused one European diplomat. He added, “Serbia is historically close to Russia, but it now wants to join the EU [European Union]. Thus, it is more of a swing state,” he added.
Whether President Sisi’s European tour will truly help improve his reputation on the world stage remains to be seen. Yet what is certain is that, today, the Egyptian leader feels more confident than at any other time since he took office in June 2014.
Khaled Dawoud is the deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly and former president of the social-liberal Dostour Party. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Antoine Gyori, Corbis via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.