CAIRO (AP) — 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."
El-Sissi has invested time, energy and travel to mend ties with western Europe after a chilly period over the 2013 ouster by the military, led by el-Sissi at the time, of Egypt's first elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. Relations have improved since then, with France and Italy emerging as the Egyptian leader's strongest EU backers.
To mark the French president's arrival, Egyptian and French flags as well as poster portraits of Hollande and el-Sissi were put up along major roads in Cairo, a practice that is reserved for key visiting leaders.
Live televised footage from the presidential palace showed children waving Egyptian and French flags. As Hollande's car entered the palace grounds, it was flanked by soldiers on horseback.
Hollande was the most prominent Western European head of state present at the ceremony last year marking the inauguration of a major extension to the Suez Canal, a multi-billion dollar project that el-Sissi lists as among his top achievements in his 22 months in office. Egypt has struck a multibillion dollar deal with France to buy 24 Rafale fighter jets and is reportedly finalizing details to buy two Mistral class helicopter carriers.
The two countries coordinate on combatting terrorism and they have a keen interest in containing a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group in Libya, Egypt's western neighbor.
The two presidents again express different views on their priorities of how to support Libya.
Hollande said it was essential that the new U.N.-brokered unity government is fully recognized internally and internationally, and that the Libyan army is capable of using the necessary force if it chooses.
Libya slid into chaos after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi, with an array of militias, including Islamic extremists, carving out fiefdoms and backing rival authorities.
As the country split into rival governments and parliaments, the Islamic State group exploited the chaos over the past two years to establish a foothold in the country.
"What is most important is that there is a government in place in Libya and that it is able to call on the international community if it decides so" within the U.N. framework, said Hollande.
On the other hand, el-Sissi's priorities are lifting an arms embargo on Libya and supporting eastern-based strongman Khalifa Hifter, a general who commands a force of army units and militia that has been battling Islamic militants, including Islamic State fighters.
"We must provide everything possible for this army," el-Sissi said, calling Hifter's forces "an army that represents the Libyan people."
Underlining el-Sissi's reach in Europe, the Egyptian leader received German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel at his Cairo palace just hours before Hollande touched down in the capital. Gabriel, also the minister of economic affairs and energy, is in Egypt accompanied by a large business delegation.
"Egypt and Europe: Economy defeats politics," was the front-page headline of Sunday's independent Al-Masry Al-Youm daily in Cairo. The accompanying article said that Egypt's relations with Europe were progressing economically, "despite political differences and western criticism of Cairo's human rights record."
Still, the Regeni case is likely to linger for some time in the backdrop of Egypt's dealings with Western Europe. Italy last week recalled its ambassador in Cairo to protest what it said was the lack of sufficient cooperation by Egyptian authorities in the investigation.
El-Sissi last week repeated Cairo's position that the police had nothing to do with Regeni's killing, but offered no explanation on who might be responsible.
"As soon as the death of that young man was announced, people among us said it was the work of Egyptian security agencies ... what happened is that evil folks in our midst did this," he said, without elaborating.
Associated Press writer Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed to this report.