Rome (AFP) – Two prominent Italian intellectuals announced on Monday that they would return the Legion of Honor awards to France in protest against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi awarding the award despite his government’s human rights violations.
Corrado Ogias, a veteran journalist for the daily La Repubblica and a former European parliamentarian from the Italian center-left, returned his award to the French embassy on Monday. Giovanna Melandri, former Italian Minister of Culture and president of the Maxxi Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, has announced that she will follow suit.
Both referred to Egypt’s role in the kidnapping, torture and murder of an Italian doctoral student in Cairo in 2016, as well as the regime’s other human rights violations.
French President Emmanuel Macron extended the red carpet to Sisi’s two-day visit last week and awarded him the highest French medal during a closed ceremony on September 7 that was not released until after the Egyptian presidency published photos of it.
Also last week, Rome prosecutors officially placed four high-ranking members of the Egyptian security forces under investigation over the death of Giulio Regeni, whose murder in 2016 strained relations between Rome and Cairo and stimulated the human rights community in Italy.
Speaking outside the French embassy, Ogias said he returned his 2007 award out of a “sense of resentment,” given that the prize was awarded to Sisi at the same time that Rome’s public prosecutors were explaining in detail Regeni’s torture to a parliamentary committee.
“The two things together were very powerful,” he told reporters. “I couldn’t refrain from responding.”
In a Facebook post on Monday, Milandre said she would also return the honor she received in 2003, saying it was sad but it was necessary to make clear that “honor” must mean something.
“I hope this gesture will help open a frank and friendly confrontation in our two countries, where the values that we want to defend, strengthen and continue to honor in a democratic Europe and a globalized world,” she wrote. .
El-Sisi’s state visit sparked protests by human rights activists angry at France’s welcoming of Sisi despite the deadliest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history. At the time, it was not known that Macron awarded Sisi the highest Medal of the Legion of Honor from the Order of Merit, Grand-Croix, or Grand-Cross.
The award ceremony was held without the press before dinner at the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. The event was not on Macron’s official agenda.
The French presidency said such ceremonies are usually part of the protocol during state visits.
The French ambassador to Italy Christian Masset said he respected Ogias and defended the government’s human rights record.
After Ogias returned his award, he tweeted: “France is on the front lines of human rights and is not making any concessions.” “Many cases were discussed during President Sisi’s visit to Paris, in the most appropriate and effective way.”
The Legion of Honor was awarded to French war heroes, writers, artists, and businessmen. But it has also been awarded to leaders with questionable human rights records, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (although he brought it back in 2018) and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
France has sometimes stripped people of honor, including Harvey Weinstein, in 2017, in the wake of the #MeToo accusations of sexual misconduct against him.
During the visit, France and Egypt signed contracts for French development aid and cooperation in the field of hospitals and transportation.
In his press conference with Sisi, Macron justified this cooperation and ruled out making it conditional on human rights issues, saying that Egypt is France’s main partner in combating extremism.
“It would be ineffective in terms of human rights and be counterproductive in the war on terror – which is why I will not do that,” he said.
Sylvie Corbett from Paris contributed.