Cairo (AFP) – French President Francois Hollande sealed several economic deals with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo Sunday during a visit dogged by allegations of rights abuses in the North African country.
Hollande had touched down in Cairo to a lavish welcome, pulling up at the historic Al-Qubbah palace flanked by a cavalry guard and to a 21-gun salute.
He and Sisi later oversaw the signing of several memorandums of understanding, including a 1.2 billion euro deal to expand the metro line in Cairo.
Later at a news conference, both leaders veered into the question of rights abuses under Sisi, who activists accuse of crushing dissent.
Turning to Hollande, Sisi said the French president had brought up the issue during their meeting.
“The region we live in, President Hollande, is very turbulent,” said Sisi.
He added that “European criteria” of human rights should not be applied to struggling countries such as Egypt, and should include rights to “better education and better housing”.
Hollande said respecting human rights was not an obstacle to fighting jihadists, who have conducted large scale attacks in both France and Egypt.
“Human rights are not a constraint but also a way to fight against terrorism,” he said.
On the eve of Hollande’s visit, rights groups including Amnesty International had criticised what they called France’s “deafening silence” on allegations of abuses in Egypt.
– ‘Evil force’ –
When a reporter brought up the case of Italian student Giulio Regeni, whose body was found bearing torture marks in Cairo in February, Sisi said there was a plot by an “evil force”.
“Let me say we are being confronted by an evil force that is trying to shake Egypt, and give a false impression of what is happening in Egypt,” he said.
Italian officials have voiced suspicion that the PhD student was killed by security services, and Rome has recalled its ambassador from Cairo to protest the pace of Egypt’s investigation into his death.
Egypt denies he was killed by the police.
“I want to say what is happening in Egypt is an attempt to destroy state institutions. Today accusations are made against the police to bring down the police, then against judges to bring down the judiciary,” Sisi said.
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 IS, 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 become 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.