French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday human rights in Egypt were perceived as worse now than under former strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled by protests in 2011.
His comments marked a hardening after he said in 2017 he would not "lecture" President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi over civil liberties, which activists say are being eroded.
"I think current policies are perceived by intellectuals and Egypt's civil society as tougher than under the Mubarak regime," Macron told reporters on the sidelines of a trip to Egypt.
Mubarak, a former air force commander, was jailed for conspiring to kill demonstrators who ended his three-decade rule, but he was freed on appeal in 2017.
"I can't see how you can pretend to ensure long-term stability in this country, which was at the heart of the Arab Spring and showed its taste for freedom, and think you can continue to harden beyond what's acceptable or justified for security reasons," Macron added.
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"I think that's becoming paradoxical and harmful for Egypt itself."
Non-governmental organisations are pressuring Macron to be firm with the Egyptian president, who in April secured a second term, shoring up his position as a power-broker in the region.
Macron said he would be more outspoken during the three-day trip, which began on Sunday, and would also mention individual cases in private. He was to meet Sissi on Monday.
Sissi's critics accuse him of cracking down on all dissent, but supporters say tough measures are needed to stabilize Egypt, rocked by years of unrest after the fall of Mubarak.
In an interview earlier this month, Sissi denied that Egypt was holding political prisoners, though one rights group estimates the number at 60,000.
In October 2017, Macron gave Sissi, who was visiting Paris, a list of activists he believed could be released from prison.
On Sunday, he said only two of them had been freed, which he considered "unsatisfactory."
"I will at the same time have a confidential dialogue on individual cases and speak out more distinctly, as well as have symbolic exchanges, because I think that's in the interest of President Sissi and Egypt's stability," Macron said.
"In Egypt, we're not only talking about political opponents who are being imprisoned, but opponents who are part of the traditional democratic sphere and are not threatening the regime. Journalists, homosexuals, women and men of conviction."