This week the French train manufacturer Alstom announced that it had secured a $1 billion deal to upgrade Cairo’s oldest metro line.
It follows a contract the same company signed in 2019, to design, implement and operate two monorail lines between the new capital and east Cairo, and another between 6th October City and Giza at a cost of $2.7 billion.
News of Alstom’s victory comes as the French beauty company L’Oreal has said it is expanding in the Egyptian market and plans to invest $50 million in its factory in 10 Ramadan, a city on the outskirts of Cairo.
France and Egypt have made no secret of the fact that they are strategic economic partners. During a recent visit to Paris, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly called on French companies to increase investment in Egypt.
In May, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi met with French Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire and discussed prospects for maximising France’s investment in Egypt.
Roughly 160 French companies operate in the Egyptian market across a variety of different fields. According to Egypt’s state-run press, the volume of France’s investment in Egypt exceeds $5.8 billion and the volume of trade between them reaches $3.5 billion annually.
In the past, rights groups have called on France to put human rights at the centre of its relationship with Egypt and have accused President Emmanuel Macron of sidelining the rule of law in favour of building economic ties.
Alstom and L’Oreal’s announcements come as lawyer Ahmed Helmy was arrested in Egypt and accused of insulting the judiciary after asking for solid evidence to support an investigation into his client, a female political prisoner who is being investigated on terror charges.
Tawqa Abdel Basser Abdullah is being held in Al-Qanater women’s prison where inmates have complained about being tortured and subject to physical and sexual abuse. Over recent years, several human rights lawyers in Egypt have been arrested whilst defending political prisoners, in contravention of fair trial procedures for prisoners like Tawqa.
In 2019 France sold over $1 billion worth of arms to Egypt. In a joint statement the following year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and 17 other organisations said that “French diplomacy has, at the highest levels, long indulged President Sisi’s brutal repression of any form of dissent.”
The letter was published ahead of a visit by Al-Sisi to France, but it made little difference. When confronted on the issue, Macron said he would not force the topic of human rights, having in the past called Al-Sisi a friend.
Macron also reiterated that he believed Al-Sisi to be vital for regional security and that on this basis, taking a tougher line would be counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. “I will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on these disagreements over human rights,” Macron said.
Whilst Al-Sisi added: “You cannot present the state of Egypt, with all that it has done for its people and for stability in the region, with being a dictatorship.”
Among Egypt’s 65,000 political prisoners is the Palestinian-Egyptian Ramy Shaath, who was arrested in 2019 for his ties to the Coalition of Hope, a political alliance formed of youth leaders, politicians and journalists who planned to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Leading efforts for his release is his wife, Celine Lebrun Shaath, who is French. Whilst Macron did raise his case in last year’s press conference with Al-Sisi, Celine has said she was disappointed to find that France stopped short of conditioning its strategic partnership on human rights.
In August this year, Egypt’s Lord International razor manufacturer fired 84 workers in one week after they participated in a strike over pay rises and warned them against further protests which would lead to harsher punitive measures.
One month earlier, the International Trade Confederation listed Egypt as one of the world’s worst ten countries for workers in the world. Independent workers’ unions are banned, and sit-ins are quashed before they have begun.
When choosing to pour money into Egypt, companies like L’Oreal and Alstom simply turn a blind eye to how the Egyptian government treats its workers.