President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said he understands some Western concerns over human rights issues in Egypt, but urged critics to bear in mind the current circumstances amid "persistent attempts from evil powers" that aim to isolate the country.
El-Sisi spoke during a news conference with French President Francois Hollande in Cairo on Sunday, where they discussed regional issues and bilateral relations.
Hollande started on Sunday a two-day visit to Cairo, his second in less than a year. The French president last visited Egypt in August 2015 when he attended the inauguration of the New Suez Canal.
The visit aims at boosting economic ties between the two countries, with both presidents signing agreements in a number of fields and projects, including electricity, generating renewable energy, the Cairo metro and sewage system projects.
“We want to intensify economic relations with Egypt,” Hollande said.
“A lot of companies came here. But they will not be able to work unless there is security. This is the condition for economic development everywhere in the world, the French president said, adding: “Here, the French companies chose Egypt and will continue to invest in it.”
Hollande said that Egypt is safe now, calling upon tourists to visit.
“We would like to demonstrate that security is back and it possible for all those who love Egypt – and they are numerous – to come as tourists and spend the necessary time,” Hollande said.
Egypt's 'human rights vision'
Egypt has been facing mounting criticism over its human rights record, especially following the murder of Italian student Gulio Regeni whose body was found, bearing signs of torture, in a ditch on the outskirts of Cairo on 3 February.
"I offered my condolences over the death of the Italian student more than once and I said we are transparent and ready to receive any Italian investigative team to assure them [over the investigations]," El-Sisi told a news conference following a question to Hollande by a French journalist over Egypt's human rights record.
"But I want to clarify something important to the European community and Egyptians as well: There are attempts to tear down Egypt's institutions such as the police, judiciary and even the parliament.
"Those attempts aim at isolating Egypt from its Arab and European roles. Our job is to protect a nation of 90 million people; you can't imagine what will happen to the whole world if this country falls."El-Sisi also said it would be "difficult to implement the European standard of human rights in a country of 90 million people that is fighting terrorism."
"I assured [the French president] that Egypt considers human rights a top priority and I am asking all our European friends to consider our vision regarding human rights issues, which mainly includes the right to education, health and housing," he added.
During his speech at the press conference, Hollande said that fighting terrorism requires firmness, but that there should be a state of law, which France refers to when it talks about human rights.
“Because human rights are not a constraint, they are also a way to fight terrorism, when stability is ensured,” Hollande said.
“Human rights mean freedom of the press and freedom of expression, but it is also having a judiciary system that can respond to all questions that are asked,” the French president added.
Hollande said he spoke with Sisi "in detail" about human rights issues but that France greatly needs to cooperate with Egypt in the fight against terrorism.
"I discussed with President El-Sisi the murder of Regeni in Cairo as there are many questions regarding this and other incidents," Hollande said in response to a question from a journalist, though he added that "we cannot neglect the importance of Egypt in terms of fighting terrorism and facing extremism."
The fight against terrorism
El-Sisi said that uprooting terrorism not only needed security solutions, but also a comprehensive way to tackle extremist ideologies.
"Any organisations bent on destroying and controlling parts of the state need to be confronted by all means. We must also stop their source of funding," he stated.
Hollande said Egypt and France had instituted agreements between both countries concerning the security of the region and that of Egypt.
“We cannot hide that the situation in the Middle East is serious and that terrorism has deep roots, and that we should fight it with determination,” Hollande said, adding, “for us, Egypt’s security is the region’s security. And the region’s security is also Europe’s security.”
The French president spoke of the importance to coordinate efforts in the fight against terrorism.
“Terrorism is no longer simply groups, but also pieces of land which are controlled by them here in the Middle East. And we should be convinced also that terrorism has roots also in Europe, and we need to fight the causes and consequences,” Hollande said.
El-Sisi and Hollande also agreed on the necessity of supporting a Libyan unity government that is accepted by Libyans, with the Egyptian president calling for the lifting of an arms embargo on the country as it grapples with terrorism.
Libya's new UN-backed unity government has secured six ministry buildings in Tripoli and will take administrative control of some of them on Monday, a deputy prime minister said earlier on Sunday, despite the volatile security situation.