Macron avoids 'lecturing' Egypt on rights, Sisi defends his record

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday it was not up to him to “lecture” Egypt on civil liberties, but told its visiting leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that strengthening human rights was in its interest.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attend a news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Sisi, denying accusations by human rights groups that he had allowed his forces to use torture, told a Paris news conference: “We do not practice torture and ... we must be wary of all the information published by rights organizations.”

With both France and Egypt concerned by the political vacuum in Libya and the threat from jihadist groups in Egypt, the two countries have cultivated even closer economic and military ties during Sisi’s rise to power.

But rights organizations have accused France under Macron of turning a blind eye to what they say are increasing violations of freedoms by Sisi’s government as the 2018 presidential elections approach.

“I believe in the sovereignty of states, and therefore, just as I don’t accept being lectured on how to govern my country, I don’t lecture others,” Macron said at a joint news conference with Sisi in Paris following talks.

“My deeply held conviction is that it’s in President Sisi’s interest to accompany the defense and consolidation of human rights by the Egyptian state, in the context that only he can be the judge of,” the French president said.

During their 50-minute meeting, Macron brought up the issue of a dozen cases of alleged abuses of freedoms, in particular relating to Egyptian journalists and human rights activists, sources close to Macron said.

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Sisi, replying to journalists’ questions, said he was responsible for 100 million Egyptians who lived in turbulent times and alongside people who followed “extremist thought” and did not like to co-exist in peace.

“When it comes to human rights, we’re not evading an answer but I hope that we understand it in its true context of a country in Egypt’s situation. We are not in Europe, with its intellectual, cultural, civilization and human advancement. We’re in a different region.”

In a report in September, Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced “widespread and systematic” use of torture by Egyptian security forces. The United Nations on Oct. 13 condemned an anti-gay crackdown in Egypt.

It also slammed French “indulgence” towards repression in Egypt.

Rights’ groups accuse France of abandoning principles in favor of economic and security interests.

They are particularly critical of the relationship between Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who in his previous role as defense minister developed a personal relationship with Sisi.

French officials dismiss the criticism and say the new administration is following a policy of not openly criticizing countries over human rights so as to be more effective in private and work on a case by case basis.

Reacting to a lack of progress in respecting human rights and on democratic standards, the United States decided in August to freeze the payment of $195 million in military aid to Egypt.

Under the previous government, France concluded several major military agreements with Egypt, including the sale of 24 Rafale combat aircraft, a multi-mission frigate and two Mistral warships in contracts worth some six billion euros.

France will discuss the possible sale of more Rafale aircrafts with Sisi, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said earlier on Tuesday.

Reporting by Marine Pennetier in Paris and; Nadine Awadalla in Cairo; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Balmforth