Al-Sisi concludes first leg of European trip

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Pope Francis in Vatican City during his first European tour on Monday and discussed the promotion of peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa.

The meeting was the first between an Egyptian leader and the pope in eight years.

In a statement, the Vatican described the talks as “cordial” in which the pontiff stressed “the closeness and solidarity of the Church to all the people of Egypt during this period of political transition”.

Pope Francis expressed hope that Egypt’s constitutional safeguards on human rights and religious freedoms “may be strengthened”. The pope also told Al-Sisi he hoped “the path to inter-religious dialogue may continually be pursued”.

“It was reiterated that dialogue and negotiation are the only options to put an end to the conflicts and to the violence that endanger defenceless populations and cause the loss of human lives,” the Vatican said.

Hundreds of Egyptian supporters celebrated Al-Sisi’s visit in Rome’s city centre, where they danced draped in the national flag to music at a street party, holding up banners with the president’s face.

Al-Sisi’s four-day tour, which will also include a visit to France, is aimed at securing European investment in the Egyptian economy.

The president held talks with his Italian counterpart Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinale Presidential Palace, on Monday.

Al-Sisi was accompanied by a high-profile delegation including the ministers of foreign affairs, trade and industry, investment, supply and internal trade.

The Egyptian-Italian talks further covered means of bolstering bilateral relations, especially in the economic, investment, transport, energy, industry and tourism fields.

Other areas of discussion included means of coordinating stances vis-a-vis regional and international issues of common interest, the Middle East peace process, the situation in Libya and Syria, and terrorism.

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hailed Egypt as a “strategic partner” of Italy and Europe.

“Italy is absolutely convinced that the Mediterranean is not the frontier but the heart of Europe and Egypt must be considered a strategic partner in addressing together the problems of this area,” Renzi said. “The only way to avoid an escalation of [the problems is] through very strong cooperation between Egypt and Europe.”

Renzi announced he would be sending a major trade delegation to Cairo in February in an effort to boost the two countries’ economic ties and also said there would be annual high-level meetings to address issues of mutual concern.

Among these issues is the turmoil of Egypt’s neighbour Libya, which has contributed to a surge in the number of refugees arriving in Italy by boat.

Renzi also said international organisations had to be more sympathetic to Egypt’s plight in dealing with the spill over from the unstable countries surrounding it.

“We have had 150,000 refugees or asylum seekers arrive in Italy this year, which is a record number. But Egypt has five million at the moment. That needs to be said loudly.”

Al-Sisi echoed Renzi’s comments, making it clear he expected help rebuilding Egypt’s shattered economy in return for his country helping restore stability to the region and combat Islamic militancy.

“We expect a real reaction,” Al-Sisi said. “Real support from Europe for Egypt in the upcoming period.”