In recent years, France and Egypt have developed a close relationship based on common interests in the Middle East. Some might suggest that it harkens back to the tradition established with Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt at the end of the 18th century. It led to the future emperor’s sincere fascination with Egyptian history and culture. The obelisk at Place de la Concorde stands as a commemoration of that moment of apparent cultural convergence.
President Emmanuel Macron has, at times, evinced a certain nostalgia for powerful French leaders of the past, whether kings or emperors. But the French people gave up their fascination with the Corsican general long ago and have largely forgotten his accomplishments or written them off as irrelevant to the life of la république in the 21st century.
The Rapid Growth of Emmanuel Macron’s Authoritarianism
The rapprochement between France and Egypt stands on other grounds. At the very least, both leaders consider Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan their bitter enemy, though for different reasons. Lucrative arms deals may also help to explain their deep empathy. Macron, therefore, had every reason last week to welcome Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for a state visit, despite the COVID-19 lockdown that forbade French citizens from wandering more than 20 kilometers from their homes.
Macron’s diplomatic welcome included a special moment when he bestowed the prestigious Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneuron a man who came to power in a coup in 2013 and has since acquired the reputation of a sanguinary dictator. Sisi’s reign of terror has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of political opponents and imprisoned 60,000 more, including journalists, activists, lawyers and artists, for the crime of criticizing some aspect of his regime.
President Macron forbade the French media to film Sisi’s visit. France-24 reports that the secrecy went beyond simply keeping the French media at bay during the ceremony: “The award ceremony did not feature on the official agenda given to French reporters.” It was carefully planned as a non-event, at least for the French public.
Macron couldn’t prevent the Egyptians from filming the ceremony. He understands the importance of tolerating foreign visitors’ taste for selfies. All this while the “French media were also barred from filming other stages of his visit to Paris.” What Macron didn’t anticipate was the possibility that the Egyptians would publish the video. According to France-24, “French broadcaster TMC later aired footage found on the website of the Egyptian presidency.”
Macron soon had a PR fiasco on his hands. The same president who is facing massive protests for proposing a law that would punish the media and citizens for filming the actions of French police failed to prevent his host’s publishing the video of an event shameful enough to be removed from the official agenda. Macron discovered the reality of the principle immortalized by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, who, in his poem “To a Mouse,” offered the English language a precious proverb about “the best-laid schemes of mice and men.” The president’s scheme, like the mouse’s in an earlier “bleak December,” ended up going seriously awry.
Not only was Macron’s ploy unearthed, as brutally as the poor mouse’s burrow under the force of Burns’ plow, but on Monday, France learned that the celebrated Italian journalist Corrado Augias had decided to ceremoniously return his own Legion of Honor cross in protest. Swallowing its shame, the government explained that “the gesture was an unavoidable part of protocol on a state visit.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Absolutely avoidable but at the cost of an economic or military advantage that obviously trumps any other pragmatic or ethical considerations.
The official account of the event stated that “bestowing of awards is one of the traditional elements of state visits, which are rare, with just one to two per year in France.” That may be, but nothing obliged Macron to invite Sisi, and the president can certainly adjust protocol when there is a compelling reason to do so.
The situation is exquisitely ironical. It demonstrates why a leader like Macron may wish to pass laws serving to hide from public view acts conducted by public officials, whether it’s an award ceremony or instances of police brutality. Further irony concerned the television station that revealed the subterfuge. TMC stands for Télé Monte Carlo. It was created in Monaco by Prince Rainier III in 1954. Historically, it was independent from France, though TMC is now fully owned by TF1, France’s prime private television channel. The historical tradition of TMC’s independence from France apparently allowed its editorial team to skirt the French government’s ban on coverage of Sisi’s visit.
But the irony doesn’t stop there. Macron recently took to pontificating about the culture of Islam, much as former president Nicolas Sarkozy notoriously pontificated about Africa’s place in history. As a Muslim country, Egypt should feel shame at being part of a community experiencing what he terms a “global crisis.” But Sisi has demonstrated that the best way of responding to “Islamist terrorism” is by transforming the nation into a brutally terrorist state. Perhaps Macron sees this as a model for France. His silencing of the media was merely a homage to Sisi. Imitation, even in politics, remains the sincerest form of flattery.
For the moment, however, the news teams at TMC and other news services reporting the story have not been thrown in jail, and the pundits are now remarking that Macron’s chances of winning the next election are dwindling by the day.
As the proud defender of the republican faith in “liberté, égalité, franternité,” Macron will obviously avoid pushing his imitation of Sisi too far. In any case, the existing justice system would never allow it. How, after all, could a president justifiably defend the right to blaspheme against other people’s religion and deny the right of his people to blaspheme against his own religion of enrichment through arms sales?
Corrado Augias’ gesture of protest was quickly followed by the former Italian culture minister, Giovanna Melandri, who is turning in her own medal. They focused on the kidnapping, torture and murder of the Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, who had taken too direct an interest in the workings of Sisi’s police state. There is an eerie parallel with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi under Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The difference is that Regeni was a researcher, not a journalist with an international audience.
Zena Tahhan, writing for Al Jazeera in 2018, recounted the evolution of Sisi’s regime, which began in 2013 with the systematic suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of President Mohamed Morsi, who had won the election following the Arab Spring and the departure of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Tahhan explained that the persecution quickly “extended well beyond Muslim Brotherhood supporters” and began “targeting journalists, leading activists and any critics of President Sisi.”
She highlighted the fate of photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, jailed in August 2013, “after he was arrested while taking pictures as Egyptian security forces violently dispersed the Rabaa sit-in.” Thanks to the campaign by Amnesty International, Zeid was eventually released in 2019. Sisi’s government had accused him of the very crime Macron wants to have at his disposal to prevent nosy individuals and the media from documenting the activities of his sometimes over-aggressive police.
Tahhan explained that following the events of the Arab Spring, Egypt’s economy had become fragile, but “after Sisi took power, Saudi and Gulf money began to flow into Egypt, temporarily stabilising the Egyptian economy.” A new coalition was in place, encouraged by Western powers, including the US and France. Sisi’s Egypt, Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed’s United Arab Emirates have now joined forces to intervene in all the affairs of the Middle East with a view to dominating the region. They count on the support of the US and the growing possibility of welcoming Israel into the group. The main enemy of all is Iran, but Erdogan’s Turkey also stands in their way.
Where this will lead, especially with the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, nobody knows. Perhaps Robert Burns deserves the last word (the conclusion of “To a Mouse”).
Forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
(Forward though I cannot see
I guess and fear.)
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
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