France will not condition weapons sales to Egypt on human rights concerns, French President Emmanuel Macron said after meeting with his Egyptian counterpart in Paris on Monday.
In an unusual press conference exchange following their high-level meeting in Paris, both heads of state also expressed opposing views in a firm but polite discussion about the role of religious values in society.
In reference to the publication in France of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad, considered blasphemous by Muslims, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said “it’s very important that when we’re expressing our opinion, that we don’t, for the sake of human values, violate religious values”.
“The rank of religious values is much higher than human values… They are holy and above all other values,” he added.
Macron responded: “We consider human values are superior to everything else. That’s what was brought by the philosophy of the Enlightment and the foundation of the universalism of human rights.”
Under France’s secularism, blasphemy is allowed in France, Macron stressed.
“When there’s a caricature … this is not a message from France toward your religion and the Muslim world, this is the free expression of someone who is, indeed, provoking, blaspheming. It is allowed in my country,” he said.
‘Policy of dialogue’
Macron said he had brought up the issue of human rights during their discussions and said he remained “a constant advocate of democratic and social openness”.
But he ruled out conditioning France’s deepening defence and trade ties with Egypt on the issue of rights.
“I won’t make our defence and economic cooperation conditional upon these [human rights] disagreements,” he said. “I think it is more effective to have a policy of dialogue than a policy of boycott, which would reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism and for regional stability.”
Amnesty International’s Egypt and Libya researcher Hussein Baoumi accused Macron of failing to hold el-Sisi to account.
“Macron’s message sends a very dangerous message to Egypt, because it’s basically reiterating that actual cooperation between the two countries won’t be impacted by the human rights situation in Egypt,” Baoumi told Al Jazeera from the Tunisian capital, Tunis.
“It’s also a very dangerous message because from the Egyptian government’s point of view, ‘counterterrorism’ means arresting peaceful human rights defenders, it means arresting peaceful protesters, it means subjecting them to very dire conditions, it means enforcing disappearances and it means torture in order to extract confessions.”
Activists had been calling on Macron to press el-Sisi on his handling of human rights, but the French leader claimed he did not want to weaken Cairo’s ability to counter armed groups in the region amid concerns over Libya, domestic security and instability across the Sahel.
France views its partnership with Egypt as critical to containing armed groups operating in the Sinai peninsula and Libya.
Macron hosted el-Sisi, whom he referred to as his “friend”, for talks on the second day of the Egyptian’s three-day state visit to France.
Dozens of political detainees are on death row in Egypt, and thousands are believed to be imprisoned.
Prior to el-Sisi’s visit, more than a dozen human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, urged Macron to end his “unconditional support for the Egyptian government”.
French officials dismissed the criticism, saying the government had a policy of avoiding public declarations about other countries’ rights records and instead raising concerns in private.
El-Sisi has overseen the largest crackdown on civil society in Egypt in living memory, jailing thousands of pro-democracy activists, reversing freedoms won in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, silencing critics and placing draconian rules on rights groups.
Between 2013 and 2017, France was the main weapons supplier to Egypt.
Those contracts have dried up, including deals for more Rafale fighter jets and warships that had been at an advanced stage.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said el-Sisi’s visit to France was aimed at “reviving” the Egyptian-French relationship.
“Macron said that human rights were extremely important and that Egypt as a democracy should respect civil liberties and have a strong civil society,” Butler said, “but that Egypt remained a very important partner for France on many other issues, including what they call counterterrorism in the region.”
She added that campaigners were very worried about the so-called red carpet treatment el-Sisi enjoyed, “because they say … the strategic partnership between Paris and Cairo is a betrayal of French values because Egypt’s human rights record is so poor.”
France and Egypt have cultivated closer economic and military ties during el-Sisi’s rise to power. The 66-year-old president seized office after leading the 2013 military overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.