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Human rights and journalism
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 01 - 2019

Nothing speaks more of the biases of the Western press than what occurred during the joint press conference held by Presidents Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Emmanuel Macron following the latter's recent visit to Cairo. French journalists homed in on a single subject: human rights. Naturally, questions on the state of human rights in Egypt, or for that matter in France, the US, the UK or any other country, are perfectly legitimate and should be answered. But the fact that attending French journalists ignored other sensitive issues that were discussed during this visit, as well as the important agreements that were signed during this occasion, invites one to question the objectivity and professionalism of the French press.
Al-Sisi and Macron discussed a number of issues of concern to peoples of both countries who would have expected the journalists at that press conference to probe for further details. For example, is it true that there is a new deal for the sale of more Rafale fighter planes to Egypt? Is it true that some of the parts of these planes are manufactured in the US? These are only some of the questions on which people might have wanted some clarification during the press conference, but the journalists never posed them.
I, for one, thought it odd that some parts of the Rafale war planes might be manufactured in the US, so I asked Gilles Douet, a senior engineer with Contrack FM in Egypt, whether it was true. He told me that, for the most part, the airplane industry is internationalised. The famous US Boeing passenger planes, he said, are assembled from parts made in virtually all countries in the world working in this field.
There remains the question as to the abovementioned Rafale deal. Was it or was it not concluded during this visit? Is it true that Washington put the brakes on it?
Forty agreements in different fields, worth a total of more than 1.5 billion euros, were signed during the French president's visit. At the same time, some major French firms announced plans to increase their investments in diverse fields in Egypt soon. Egyptian newspapers reported that Agnès Pannier-Runacher, secretary of state at the French Ministry of Economy and Finance, affirmed that Egypt had succeeded in furnishing the right climate to attract foreign investors, adding that there are currently 160 French firms operating in Egypt with investments of up to five billion euros. Egyptian Minister of Trade and Industry Amr Nassar said that Egyptian exports to France from January to November last year came to around 560 million euros, which was seven per cent higher than the volume of exports during the same period the previous year. Egypt imported more than 1.5 billion of French goods last year, meaning that the volume of trade between the two countries came to over two billion euros in 2018. Was such a volume of bilateral trade not worthy of the interest of the journalists at the joint press conference?
As for the question of human rights, the journalists' focus on it was disproportionate to the amount of attention given to it during the presidents' talks. In an interview with L'Opinion, Sebastien Laye, a French economic expert at the Thomas More Institute, advised Macron to be prudent and not embarrass his Egyptian hosts when broaching certain subjects that some quarters in France were eager to push. It was “counterproductive” to meddle in the domestic policies of a country of Egypt's status and influence in the region. He also observed that France was not in a position to lecture others on governance. After three revolutions and the establishment of five republics, French democracy is still deficient.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a French politician who competed against Macron in the last presidential elections in France, lashed out the French government's handling of the French yellow vests or “Gilets Jaunes” demonstrations, criticising both its approach to crisis management and human rights violations. Noting that 1,800 demonstrators as well as a thousand police have been wounded during the past 12 weeks and that 11 protesters have been killed by police bullets, he said, “This is the worst toll ever seen in the last 60 years” from government crackdowns on mass demonstrations and strikes.
Macron responded calmly and sensibly to the human rights related questions posed to him during the joint press conference. The same applies to Al-Sisi, who explained that human rights are not restricted to freedom of expression alone. The panoply of rights mentioned in the International Declaration of Human Rights cannot be reduced to just a single right which then is made the sole criterion for judging whether or not a country respects human rights. The president proceeded to enumerate the Egyptian government's accomplishments in this domain. For example, healthcare is a human right. Whereas in the past, government hospitals treated 10,000 people a year, today they treat 10,000 people a month. In addition, the government's campaign to fight Hepatitis C is the most successful such campaign in the world. Decent housing, too, is a human right. Al-Sisi told reporters that Egypt recently enabled 250,000 families to move from slums to properly equipped and furnished flats. I scoured the French newspapers for this information but could not find it.

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