PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday acknowledged “disagreements” with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi over human rights, but said this will not prevent France from reaching deals economic and defense efforts with the North African country, which has seen the heaviest crackdown on dissent in modern history.
In an unusual exchange after their high-level meeting in Paris, the two heads of state also expressed opposing views in a firm but polite, almost philosophical, discussion about the role of religious values in society.
Macron greeted el-Sisi at the Elysee Palace at the start of the Egyptian president’s two-day state visit to France. They debated human rights issues in addition to discussions on the fight against terrorism, the conflict in Libya and other regional issues.
In a joint press conference, Macron said: “We have disagreements on this subject (human rights) and we are talking about it very frankly.
Macron called for greater inclusion of civil society in the political decision-making process in Egypt, saying it was a better way to fight extremism than “political repression.”
El-Sisi oversaw the toughest crackdown on critics in Egypt in living memory, jailing thousands of Islamists along with pro-democracy activists, overturning freedoms won in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, silencing criticism and imposing draconian rules on rights groups.
On Monday, an Egyptian court extended the detention of an activist and researcher who previously worked for one of the country’s most prominent rights groups.
However, Macron ruled out subordinating France’s cooperation with Egypt in matters of economy and defense to human rights issues, since Egypt is France’s key partner in the fight against extremism and for the stability of the region.
El-Sisi’s state visit has been continued amid the coronavirus pandemic as the two countries seek to strengthen their strategic partnership, with a focus on joint efforts to reduce insecurity in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. France has also assured Egypt of its support in the health sector.
More than 20 human rights groups denounced in a joint declaration France’s strategic partnership with Egypt, the North African country “abusively using anti-terrorism legislation to eradicate legitimate human rights work and suppress any peaceful dissent in the country.
They called for a demonstration Tuesday near the National Assembly in Paris.
With a frank tone seldom heard in public, el-Sisi and Macron expressed opposing views in a heated exchange about what should prevail between religious and human values - while strongly condemning any extremist attack.
Referring to the publication in France of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, considered blasphemous by Muslims, el-Sisi said: “It is very important that when we express our opinion, we do not violate, in the name of human values, religious values. ”
“The rank of religious values is much higher than human values… they are holy and above all other values,” he added.
Macron replied: “We consider human values to be superior to everything else. This is what was brought by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the foundation of the universalism of human rights.
Under French secularism, blasphemy is allowed in France, Macron said.
“When there is a caricature… it is not a message from France towards your religion and the Muslim world, it is the free expression of someone who, in effect, provokes blasphemy. It’s allowed in my country, ”he said.
A few days before El-Sisi arrived in France, under pressure from the UN and Western activists, the Egyptian authorities released three workers with one of the last rights groups still active in Egypt. The three Egyptian Human Rights Initiative staff, who were arrested in November following a meeting with diplomats from Western countries, were released on Thursday pending an investigation into accusations of belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news.
El-Sisi often warns that his firm hand to ensure stability is needed, pointing to war and destruction in Syria, Yemen and Libya as an alternative.
Egypt is an ally of the United States and has deep economic ties with European countries. French authorities view Egypt as a key country in efforts to stabilize the struggling region, and Macron has warned that in the absence of Western support, Egypt could turn to authoritarian rivals in the West. , China and Russia.
Egypt has entered into several armaments agreements with France since 2015, including the purchase of two French-made Mistral-class helicopter carriers and two dozen French Rafale advanced fighter jets.
El-Sisi, as Minister of Defense, led in 2013 the ousting by the army of a freely elected but divisive president. He was elected in 2014 and won a second term in 2018, running with virtually no opposition. Last year, constitutional amendments approved in a national referendum allowed him to stay in power possibly until 2030.
AP writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Samy Magdy in Cairo, Egypt contributed.