A few days before President Francois Hollande’s visit to Cairo last week, the French ambassador invited me to meet with Hollande, as part of a small group of Egyptian writers and politicians.
The purpose of the meeting, ambassador Andre Parant said, was to discuss the political and economic situation and explore ways to strengthen ties between Egypt and France. Parant made a point of inviting a diverse group of independent thinkers, perhaps to ensure that the meeting was not reflective of any one political and ideological view.
The meeting, which lasted about an hour, was attended on the French side by the minister of culture, the director of the Arab World Institute in Paris, and several parliamentarians.
The conversation turned to the current situation in Egypt, the political, economic, and cultural challenges facing the country, and potential avenues of cooperation with France. I focused in my intervention on the development of French-Egyptian economic relations, observing that Hollande’s visit offered little on two of the most vital issues—the return of French tourists to Egypt and increasing foreign investment in areas that could create jobs for the youth.
President Hollande commented that he was working assiduously to encourage French tourism in Egypt, but that this depended on Egypt’s progress in securing airports and tourist facilities. As for investment, he said that a meeting that same morning with the French-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce was fruitful and he would pursue the issue further upon his return to France.
Attendees also discussed how to combat terrorism without sacrificing constitutional and human rights gains, the turmoil in the Arab region, and cooperation in higher education. Hollande expressed France’s commitment to support Egyptian efforts in economic development, counterterrorism, and the building of constitutional institutions.
I left the meeting thinking that we had conveyed a realistic picture of the nature of the challenges facing Egypt and the need for deeper cooperation between the two countries to address them. So I was shocked when, a few days later, everyone at the meeting came under severe media scrutiny, accused of urging France to cut economic ties with Egypt, scale down commercial cooperation, and bar French tourism.
In fact, during the meeting with Hollande, we discussed ways to develop and encourage investment cooperation and overcome the tourism crisis. It is true that some attendees also raised concerns over the political situation, democracy, and human rights, but this was part of a frank conversation in which attendees expressed divergent views, and there was absolutely no incitement against the state, attempts to to leverage Western support, or conspiring to destroy national institutions as was later reported in the media.
So why was the meeting the focus of so much attention and criticism when it was neither held in secret, nor as it the only meeting Hollande had during his visit? In fact he also met with other writers and intellectuals, as well as with investors, MPs, and officials.
The answer, I think, is that such accusations of treasonous conduct are not new. They are revived whenever state agencies need a hook on which to hang their mismanagement and failure to resolve the Egyptian people’s problems. The state-owned media ignores the public's worries and problems pertaining to the grinding economic crisis, price hikes, as well as political and popular resentment over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
Instead, they point the finger at statements and blog posts (some of which were unfortunate) about a conversation with a guest of Egypt, as if such a thing could conceivably lead to a breaking of French-Egyptian ties, change the course of bilateral economic cooperation, or undermine our national security.
The suspicions and charges of treason leveled over the past few years at any person who dares to object to state policies and practices, or even express reservations, is no longer acceptable. In fact, it’s a sure-fire way of destroying society and its institutions, deepening the divisions within it, and weakening its ability to deal with challenges and risks. A state is not made strong only by its defensive and combat capacities, but by its internal cohesion, tolerance of diverse views, and belief that difference does not equal treason.
The insistence on one opinion and the state’s dominance of the public sphere only furthers social divisions. It turns young people who wish to participate and forge the future either to despair and frustration or to violence, having found all avenues for peaceful dialogue and protest closed.