Macron presses Egypt's Sisi on respect for 'freedoms'

Cairo (AFP) –


French President Emmanuel Macron pressed his Egyptian counterpart on human rights Monday, warning that stability and freedoms go hand-in-hand, on the second day of a visit aimed at boosting ties.

Macron, on a three-day trip to the North African country, had set the tone after arriving in Egypt on Sunday by vowing to talk more "openly" about human rights concerns with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Talk on the sensitive issue came to the fore during a joint news conference between the two presidents in Cairo on Monday after they met and signed some 30 deals including in transportation, education and health.

"Real stability depends on the vitality of society," Macron told reporters, with Sisi standing by his side.

"Stability and lasting peace go hand in hand with respect for individual freedoms, dignity of everyone and the rule of law."

The French president had been heavily criticised in October 2017 for saying he was not in a position to "lecture" the former army chief on civil liberties.

But according to Macron, "things have not gone in the right direction since October 2017" and "bloggers, journalists and activists" have been jailed since then.

He underscored that a "vibrant, inclusive and active civil society remains the best defence against extremism and a condition for stability of the country".

Without these conditions, he said, "the image of Egypt may be damaged".

Sisi presented his own vision for Egypt, saying that the lives of its people should be improved through economic, social and religious reforms.

He also noted that his country continues to grapple with challenges including high unemployment levels and high birth rates.

"You are asking me about the rights of bloggers, and I am asking you how shall I find jobs for them?" he told the news conference.

- Bloggers singled out -

Sisi also referred to a "failed plan" to establish a "religious state" in Egypt.

"Don't forget we are part of turbulent region," said Sisi, who rose to power after leading the military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.

Since then, Egyptian authorities have carried out a severe crackdown on Morsi's supporters, jailing many and trying them on terror-related charges.

The clampdown later swept up journalists, bloggers as well as secular, liberal and leftist activists.

It also saw freedoms gained following a 2011 uprising against long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak diminish.

Heavy restrictions have been imposed on protests and hundreds of websites critical of the government blocked under Sisi's rule.

But Sisi maintained that human rights should not be confined to freedoms of bloggers but also people's rights to health, education and housing.

"I am sorry to tell you that bloggers speak a completely different language from the reality we live in," said Sisi.

"Egypt will not advance through bloggers but Egypt will advance by work, effort and perseverance."

Macron was careful to underscore his awareness of the challenges facing Egypt.

"I do not underestimate any of the difficulties of rebuilding a state, developing an economy... I am not giving any lessons," said the French president.

But Sisi said he believed it was "fair" for his government to consider the "stability and security" of Egypt's 100 million population when planning for the future.

"We have to admit and speak fairly that we are not like Europe and America," said the Egyptian leader.