France’s Hollande begins two-day visit to Egypt

Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi and his French counterpart Francois Hollande review the honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the al-Quba presidential palace in Cairo on April 17, 2016
AFP

Cairo (AFP) – French President Francois Hollande arrived in Cairo on Sunday for a two-day visit seen as a boost for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with security and economic cooperation on the table.

Hollande arrived from Beirut, as part of a regional tour that will also take him to Jordan. A beaming Sisi greeted the French president at Cairo airport, live footage on state television showed.

Hollande brings a delegation of business leaders in tow, and he and Sisi are expected to also discuss Middle East crises including the war against the Islamic State group and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He went straight to the historic Al-Qubbah palace, where his car, flanked by a cavalry guard, pulled up to a gun salute.

Hollande and Sisi were to hold a meeting and were expected to give a press conference later Sunday.

The question of human rights will be in the background. Hollande has been among Sisi’s strongest supporters in Europe, since the former army chief overthrew his Islamist predecessor and launched a bloody crackdown on protesters in 2013.

France has already signed major arms contracts with Egypt since, and Hollande and his delegation are expected to agree economic deals throughout the visit.

These agreements will include deals on funding transportation and renewable energy, the French presidency has said.

On the eve of the visit, human rights groups including Amnesty International had criticised what they called France’s “deafening silence” on rights violations in Egypt.

Since the overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, police have waged a bloody crackdown on Islamists that has killed more than 1,000 protesters.

The crackdown has spread to secular and leftwing dissidents who had supported Morsi’s overthrow but then turned on Sisi.

Meanwhile, jihadists have staged an insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen.

The Islamic State group’s Egypt affiliate has also claimed responsibility for bombing a plane carrying Russian holidaymakers over Sinai last October, killing all 224 people on board.

Sisi, who won a presidential election in 2014, has manoeuvred his country into being a cornerstone in the fight against the Islamic State group, which a US-led coalition is battling in Iraq and Syria.

IS has taken over the city of Sirte in neighbouring Libya, more than five years after French-led air strikes helped rebels there defeat dictator Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.

For many governments in the West that initially condemned the overthrow of Morsi — Egypt’s first democratically elected president — the fight against jihadists has became the main concern rather than pushing democracy.

For France, Egypt has also become a key market, especially for military hardware.

Egypt was the first country to buy French Rafale warplanes, and also purchased two Mistral helicopter carrier ships.

After his Cairo trip, Hollande will on Tuesday visit Jordan’s Prince Hassan air base, where French aircraft taking part in the coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq are stationed.

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