'No political prisoners in Egypt,' insists Sisi – despite jailing hundreds of protesters

'No political prisoners in Egypt,' insists Sisi – despite jailing hundreds of protesters
Egypt's President Sisi is in Paris for his first meeting with French leader Macron, who is under pressure from rights groups to denounce Egypt's repressive regime.
3 min read
24 October, 2017
Egypt's Sisi is in Paris for his first meeting with his French counterpart Macron [Getty]
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was welcomed in Paris on Tuesday amid pressure by rights groups for France's leader Macron to denounce the North African country's repressive regime.

Sisi, a former general who ousted the elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, will meet the French defence and foreign ministers as well as business groups during his three-day trip that started on Monday.

Macron, a 39-year-old centrist elected in May, is pushing a pragmatic, results-oriented foreign policy but also one that sees France uphold its historic mission of defending human rights.

The visit will be a test of this balancing act because Egypt is a major buyer of French arms and a crucial partner in the war-wracked Middle East. But Sisi is accused of systematic abuses and repression.

At a press conference of various rights groups on Monday in Paris, Amnesty International urged Macron to speak out about human rights.

"The silence of foreign governments sends a message to the Egyptian authorities that they can continue," said Hussein Baoumi, Egypt expert at Amnesty International.

While Human Rights Watch accused France of having "disgraceful policies of indulgence" towards Egypt.

Balance rights and security

Asked about the criticism of his rule, Sisi told France 24 "there are no political prisoners in Egypt", insisting all detainees were interrogated and brought before the courts according to normal judicial procedure.

Rights groups have repeatedly accused Sisi of repressive policies that stifle dissent in the media and politics, as well as the use of torture by security forces.

HRW has previously accused the Egyptian regime of routinely torturing political detainees, while the UN Committee Against Torture concluded in its 2017 report that it had reached "the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt" and that "perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity" despite Egyptian laws prohibiting its use.

In a separate interview with French daily Le Figaro, the president said he was trying to balance rights with security needs.

"Egypt wishes to achieve the necessary balance between the rights and duties of citizens on the one hand, and the security challenges of the fight against terrorism on the other," he told the newspaper.

"It's sometimes a difficult equation when your responsibility is the security of a hundred million citizens."

Regarding Islam, Sisi said there needed to be religious discourse to combat extremism.

"We must work together and unite to correct erroneous interpretations of religious precepts erected as ideological pretexts to justify violence and terrorism," he told Le Figaro.

A statement from Macron's office last week said their talks would focus on security and regional stability "but also the human rights situation to which France is particularly attentive".

But government sources told AFP behind-the-scenes diplomacy would be favoured over any public confrontation with Sisi.

"If we arrive saying 'what you're doing is wrong', it's not effective. What works is bringing up specific cases. We need to be stubborn but discreet," one diplomat told AFP.

Egypt is a major buyer of French military equipment with orders worth more than 5.0 billion euros ($5.8 billion) since 2015 including for 24 Rafale fighter jets.

The most populous country in the Middle East is viewed as a vital partner by Western countries which fear more instability in the war-ravaged region.