PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron offered his support Tuesday to Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in the fight against terrorism, but said that needs to be led with respect to human rights.
Macron and el-Sissi met for over two hours at the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris.
In a joint news conference, Macron said "our first common combat is the fight against terrorism ... France is standing by Egypt's side because the security of this friendly country is also our own security."
French authorities see Egypt as a key country in efforts to stabilize the troubled region. Both leaders have discussed at length the crisis in Libya, Egypt's chaotic North African neighbor, and the war in Syria.
Macron urged el-Sissi to lead Egypt on an "indispensable democratic path." He said a dynamic civil society and a diverse non-governmental group network must act as "shields against the terrorists' killing frenzy."
Yet Macron also said he wouldn't "give lessons" to other countries about their domestic policies.
A diplomatic official at the French presidency said Macron specifically evoked the cases of 15 human right activists and journalists, all Egyptians, during his talks with el-Sissi. The official was speaking anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
El-Sissi has presided over a large-scale crackdown on dissent. Egyptian authorities have jailed several human rights activists and banned others from travel over allegations of harming national security.
El-Sissi said he is "convinced" that Tuesday's meeting is a new starting point to "strengthen cooperation between our two countries."
Answering a question about human rights abuses, El-Sissi denied that Egyptian security forces used torture and said human rights issues should be set in the broader context of a troubled region with the risk of Islamic extremism.
He pledged to establish a "democratic, modern government in Egypt" but said the troubles in the region and the growing Islamic extremism must be taken into account.
The comments came a few days after least 16 police were killed in an ambush by militants southwest of Cairo.
Egypt has been struggling to contain an Islamic militant insurgency led by a local affiliate of the Islamic State group mostly in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Attacks elsewhere in Egypt have recently increased.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders displayed a banner reading "Save Egyptian journalists" and portraits of jailed reporters in front of the Luxor obelisk in Paris' city center.
"Press freedom is violated every day in Egypt ... It is impossible today to be an independent and free journalist" in the country, said Christophe Deloire, head of Reporters Without Borders.
El-Sissi was also to meet France's prime minister and foreign minister Tuesday evening, then finance minister and French business leaders Wednesday as part of his three-day official visit.
Egypt has concluded several arms deals with France since 2015, including the purchase of two French-made Mistral-class helicopter carriers, 24 French Rafale warplanes and missiles.
Nicolas Garriga in Paris contributed to the story