The sale of 24 French-built Rafale fighter jets to Egypt has been hailed as a triumph by French politicians and industry chiefs. But little attention has been paid to the decision to sell arms to a regime accused of multiple human rights abuses.
French President François Hollande confirmed the €5.2 billion sale of the warplanes, along with a naval frigate and missiles, in a statement on Thursday, declaring triumphantly: “The Rafale fighter jet has won its first export contract.”Indeed, it has been a long and rocky road for the Rafale, which until yesterday had failed to secure a single overseas buyer in the 14 years since it went into service.
The deal with Egypt seems to have finally vindicated France’s decision, in the early 1980s, to develop its own fighter jet – after pulling out of a joint European project that eventually led to the development of the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Chief executive Eric Trappier of Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the Rafale, said the deal represented a “historic day” for the company in comments to France’s BFM TV on Friday, while Hollande told a press conference that negotiations over the sale had progressed quickly because “Egypt wanted a quality aircraft.”
Other politicians have rushed in to praise the deal.
The Socialist Party’s Harlem Désir, the secretary of state for European affairs, tweeted that it was time to “rejoice” while Alan Juppé, hoping to be the conservative UMP party’s next presidential candidate, congratulated Dassault’s engineers and workers.
French media also got in on the act. “Historic contract for the Rafale in Egypt” declared Le Figaro’s headline, while Europe 1 hailed the “the first success in the export of a combat plane made in France”.
‘Appalling human rights record’
Dissenting voices were few and far between. France’s green party, the EELV, was one of the few to question the sale of arms to a country that Human Rights Watch has described as being in the middle of a “human rights crisis” that is the “most serious in the country’s modern history”.
The EELV denounces “the delivery of weapons of war to a military dictatorship whose violations against human rights … are now legion”, said spokesperson Julien Bayou.
Since coming to power following the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been accused of a multitude of abuses including jailing thousands of supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, deadly crackdowns on protests by security forces, and the torture and beating of prisoners.
“The Egyptian government is an authoritarian one with an appalling human rights record,” Andrew Smith, of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, told FRANCE 24.
“These sales don’t just provide military support for the regime, they also send a message of political support for the oppression taking place. If France is on the side of Egyptian people, then it needs to recognise the volatile and unstable political situation and stop all arms sales immediately.”
The reports of abuses prompted the EU to place restrictions on arms sales to Egypt in August 2013, but only when they might be used for “internal repression”, the interpretation of which was left up to member states to decide.
Doing business with Egypt, but not Russia
Meanwhile, fears over the rise of jihadist groups in neighbouring Libya and in Egypt’s Sinai province have seen the West establish closer links with Sisi’s government in recent months.
These security concerns were invoked by Holland to justify the sale of the Rafales.
The warplanes “will allow Egypt to increase its security and play a full role in providing regional stability”, he said on Thursday.
But others have questioned the motivations behind the deal.
Didier Billion of the Paris-based Institute of Strategic and International Relations said that, after years of failing to find a foreign buyer for the Rafale, “France would have accepted selling to any country.”
“You can have the best product in the world but if you can’t sell it, there is no use,” he told the AFP news agency.
And selling arms is something France has been doing well of late, representing an area of growth in an otherwise struggling economy.
According to government figures, arm sales totaled more than €8 billion in 2014, up 17.3 percent on the year before – including a €3 billion deal to supply tanks, warships, helicopters and drones to Lebanon, funded by Saudi Arabia.
The Egypt deal also leaves the French government open to accusations of hypocrisy after it halted the sale of two Mistral-class warships to Russia over Moscow’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Egypt’s relative insignificance on the world stage makes the Rafale sale easier to overlook, Billion said.
“We can shut our eyes over the rights situation in Egypt but we can’t shut our eyes over Russia, because Russia is at the centre of an international power struggle,” he said.
France is now hoping the Egypt deal will open the floodgates for more foreign buyers.
“I think this initial contract might lend an additional element of confidence” to other countries that are thinking of buying the warplanes, Hollande said Thursday.
India and Qatar are among the countries considered to be possible future Rafale customers.
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