Cairo: Hours after French President Francois Hollande landed in Egypt Sunday on a visit his hosts say will deepen "distinct and strong" ties, he and his Egyptian counterpart differed publicly over human rights and the extent to which they should be respected while fighting militants.
In Egypt as part of a three-nation Middle East tour, the French leader was accompanied by a large business delegation. He and Egypt's Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi are expected to sign accords in the fields of energy, infrastructure and culture, according to an Egyptian presidential statement.
The focal point in the two presidents' disagreement during a joint press conference was over the case of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, who was kidnapped and tortured to death in Cairo, an issue that has already battered Egypt's image in Europe. Hollande told reporters he brought up Regeni's case with el-Sissi as well as that of French citizen Eric Lang who was beaten to death, allegedly by other detainees, while in police custody in September 2013.
El-Sissi again offered his condolences to the family of the Italian doctoral student, whose body was found bearing the marks of severe torture on the side of a suburban Cairo road, nine days after he disappeared on Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising and a day when police were out in force to prevent demonstrations marking the occasion.
The circumstances of Regeni's disappearance, coupled with Egypt's poor human rights record, have led to suspicions that police were responsible. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, denies involvement.
El-Sissi told reporters that accusations against the police, the judiciary and parliament are plots by "evil folks" to destroy and alienate Egypt from its Arab and European friends, saying "what is happening in Egypt is an attempt to break the country's institutions one by one."
While el-Sissi said observers should not expect Egypt to abide by European standards of human rights given the turmoil in the region, Hollande appeared to contradict him on this issue.
Responding to a journalist's question about how France would respond to terrorism if it were facing the same threats as Egypt, Hollande said that France did not see fighting terrorism as incompatible with respecting human rights. France has taken measures to counter extremist threats, Hollande said, "but we never conceded anything regarding freedoms. Because that's what we wanted to show... we can win the war on terrorism while staying ourselves and by giving as much room as possible for freedom."