Egypt's El-Sissi, France's Macron at odds over human rights

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French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Siss gesture upon el-Sissi arrival at the Elysee palace, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020 in Paris. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is paying a state visit to France for talks on fighting terrorism, the conflict in Libya and other regional issues, amid criticism from human rights groups over the Egyptian leader's crackdown on dissent. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged Monday “disagreements” with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi over human rights, but said it will not prevent France from reaching economic and defense deals with the North African country, which has seen the heaviest crackdown on dissent in its modern history.

In an unusual exchange following their high-level meeting in Paris, both heads of state also expressed opposing views in a firm but polite, almost philosophical discussion about the role of religious values in society.

Macron welcomed el-Sissi at the Elysee Palace at the start of the Egyptian president's two-day state visit to France. They discussed human right issues in addition to talks on fighting terrorism, the conflict in Libya and other regional issues.

In a joint news conference, Macron said “we have disagreements on that topic (human rights) and we talk about it very frankly.”

Macron called for a greater inclusiveness of civil society in political decision-making process in Egypt, saying it is a better way to fight extremism than “political repression.”

El-Sissi has overseen the toughest crackdown on critics in Egypt in living memory, jailing thousands of Islamists along with pro-democracy activists, reversing freedoms won in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, silencing critics and placing 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.

Yet Macron ruled out making France's cooperation with Egypt on economy and defense conditional on human rights issues, because Egypt is France's key partner in the fight against extremism and for the stability of the region.