Macron holds surprise talks with Egypt’s Sisi, meets top clerics

By AFP – Jan 29,2019 -JORDAN TIMES

French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) is welcomed by Ahmed Al Tayeb (right), the grand imam of Al Azhar, the most prestigious seat of Sunni Islamic learning in Egypt, during his visit to Azhar headquarters in Cairo, on Tuesday (AFP photo)

CAIRO — French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday held a surprise second meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah Al Sisi after talks with the country’s top clerics, ending a three-day visit aimed at boosting ties while raising human rights concerns.

Before travelling on to Cyprus for a summit of southern EU countries, Macron and Sisi held an unscheduled 45-minute meeting at Cairo airport.

Earlier, Macron met with Pope Tawadros II at St Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s ancient Coptic Orthodox Church. They both stressed the need for ‘‘dialogue between religions’’.

‘‘I decided that a new conference will be held in Paris to see how to act more effectively,’’ he said, without giving details.

A diplomatic source said the French capital would host a forum on religious minorities in the Middle East, but without giving a date.

Macron visited the church adjacent to the cathedral that was the site of a December 2016 terror attack which killed 29 people.

He also met, in Cairo, with Ahmed Al Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar, the most prestigious seat of Sunni Islamic learning in Egypt.

Their talks centred on ‘‘the training of imams [prayer leaders] in France and the fight against the misguided vision of religion’’, the French presidency said.

Also on Tuesday, Macron lunched with civil society members ‘‘active in the areas of judicial protection of detainees, press freedom, gender equality and children’s defence’’, the presidency said.

Egyptian authorities arrested six activists critical of Sisi’s government this week, including members of Karama, according to lawyer Negad Al Borai and Mohamed Al Bassiouni, a member of the opposition party.

There was no immediate confirmation of the report from the interior ministry, which, for its part, announced the arrest of 54 suspected members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The human rights situation in Egypt was at the centre of talks between Macron and Sisi on Monday.

Their different visions were on show at a joint news conference where Macron said respect of freedoms was inseparable from stability, while Sisi said security was the priority for Egypt’s 100-million population.

During the visit, Macron and Sisi oversaw the signing of some 30 deals worth nearly a billion euros including in transportation, education and health. No arms deals were signed.

But Amnesty International on Tuesday stood by a 2018 report that French security equipment, including armoured vehicles, were used by the Egyptian government in ‘‘violent repression’’ of protests, charges that Sisi denied at the press conference.

‘‘French vehicles were not merely assisting the security forces, but were themselves tools of repression, playing a very active role in the crushing of dissent,’’ Amnesty’s report said in October.

The Egyptian president said: ‘‘It’s not possible to use weapons against an unarmed citizen unless they take up and use a weapon.’’

Macron also said Egypt only used French weapons for military purposes.

A year after Sisi took office in 2014, Egypt signed deals worth 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) to buy 24 Rafale fighters from France, as well as other military hardware, such as Mistral warships and missiles.

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