French President Emmanuel Macron told his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a trip to Cairo stability and security could not be separated from human rights.
Macron, received with pomp during a three-day state visit, has been under pressure from non-governmental organisations to take a firmer stance after saying in 2017 he would not lecture Sisi on human rights.
“Stability and durable peace go together with respect for individual dignity and the rule of law and the search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights,” he said during a joint news conference with Sisi dominated by the subject of rights.
“Things haven’t gone in the right direction since 2017 — bloggers, journalists are in prison and because of that Egypt’s image can find itself suffering,” Macron said.
Sisi told reporters rights should be taken in the context of regional turbulence and the fight against terrorism.
“We’re not like Europe or the United States, we are a country or a region with its own characteristics,” he said.
“Egypt does not advance through bloggers. It advances through the work, effort and perseverance of its sons.”
Sisi ousted former President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and was elected as president a year later, presiding over a crackdown on opposition from Islamists to liberal activists.
Sisi and his supporters say the measures are needed to stabilise Egypt after the turmoil that followed the country’s 2011 uprising.
In an interview Sisi denied Egypt was holding political prisoners, though one rights group estimates the number at 60,000.
French officials say Egypt is a key strategic partner for promoting stability and security in the region, including Libya, which Macron has at the top of his foreign policy agenda.
Eight human rights groups urged Macron to deliver a strong message on rights during his trip, free “unjustly detained” prisoners and suspend arms sales that could be used in rights violations.
The French director for Human Rights Watch, one of the groups, cautiously welcomed Macron’s comments.
“It’s an important recognition by Macron of the centrality of human rights in the struggle against terrorism,” said Benedicte Jeannerod.
“The question now is to know if these words will translate into concrete changes to France’s unconditional support for Sisi’s abusive anti-terrorism policy.”
Macron dismissed suggestions of French weapons in Egypt used against civilians, saying they had only been used for military purposes.
He said no potential new military contracts were spoken about during the meeting with Sisi beyond a possible deal for 12 fighter jets.
During Macron’s trip officials signed 40 trade deals and development agreements worth an estimated total of 1.6 billion euros (1.4 billion pounds), covering sectors including transport, energy, health and telecoms, Egypt’s investment ministry said in a statement.