France's Hollande in Egypt visit dogged by rights criticism

Cairo (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande said Sunday human rights should be respected in the fight against "terrorism" after a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was overshadowed by claims of rights abuses.

Hollande had arrived in Cairo earlier for a two-day visit to oversee the signing of several economic agreements, but a press conference with Sisi was dominated by the Egyptian leader's human rights record.

Sisi said the French president had brought up the issue during their meeting.

"The region we live in, President Hollande, is very turbulent," said Sisi, turning to the visiting French leader.

When it was his turn to speak, Hollande said respecting human rights was not an obstacle to fighting jihadists, who have carried out large scale attacks in both France and Egypt.

"Human rights are not a constraint but also a way to fight against terrorism," he said.

Hollande said he had raised the case of Italian student Giulio Regeni, whose body was found covered in torture marks in February in Cairo, more than a week after his disappearance.

He said he also brought up the case of Eric Lang, a French teacher who was murdered in an Egyptian jail in 2013.

On the eve of Hollande's visit, rights groups including Amnesty International had criticised what they called France's "deafening silence" on allegations of abuses in Egypt.

When a reporter brought up the case of Regeni, Sisi said there was a plot against the country by an "evil force".

"Let me say we are being confronted by an evil force that is trying to shake Egypt, and give a false impression of what is happening in Egypt," he said.

Italian officials have voiced suspicion that the PhD student was killed by security services, and Rome has recalled its ambassador from Cairo in protest at the pace of Egypt's investigation into his death.

Egypt denies he was killed by the police.

- Deals signed -

"I want to say what is happening in Egypt is an attempt to destroy state institutions. Today accusations are made against the police to bring down the police, then against judges to bring down the judiciary," Sisi said.

On the economic front, the two leaders oversaw the signing of 18 memorandums of understanding between Egypt and France, and a 1.2 billion euro agreement to expand the metro line in Cairo.

The deals included financing for a wind farm and a solar power plant.

Since the overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, police have waged a bloody crackdown on Islamists that has killed more than 1,000 protesters.

The crackdown has spread to secular and leftwing dissidents who had supported Morsi's overthrow but then turned on Sisi.

Meanwhile, jihadists have mounted an insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen.

The Islamic State group's Egypt affiliate has also claimed responsibility for bombing a plane carrying Russian holidaymakers over Sinai last October, killing all 224 people on board.

Sisi, who won a presidential election in 2014, has manoeuvred his country into being a cornerstone in the fight against IS, which a US-led coalition is battling in Iraq and Syria.

The jihadist group has taken over the city of Sirte in neighbouring Libya, more than five years after French-led air strikes helped rebels there defeat dictator Moamer Kadhafi's regime.

For many governments in the West that initially condemned the overthrow of Morsi -- Egypt's first democratically elected president -- the fight against jihadists has become the main concern rather than pushing democracy.

For France, Egypt has also become a key market, especially for military hardware.

Egypt was the first country to buy French Rafale warplanes, and also purchased two Mistral helicopter carrier ships.

After his Cairo trip, Hollande will on Tuesday visit Jordan's Prince Hassan air base, where French aircraft taking part in the coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq are stationed.