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.
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 criticized what they called France’s “deafening silence” on allegations of abuses in Egypt.
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.