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A balancing act

German commentators divided on Egypt ahead of President El-Sisi's visit

Miro Guzzini , Tuesday 2 Jun 2015
Sisi - Merkel
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Source: Reuters)
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President Joachim Gauck and the Chancellor Angela Merkel are ready to welcome Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Berlin with the usual ceremony and dignity reserved for heads of state. But the German press and many politicians have responded more frostily to the visit.

This is nothing new: Several events in the past weeks have led to a recurrent discussion about what Germany’s stance on Egypt should look like, with many journalists criticising President El-Sisi's domestic policy.

The president himself is expected to focus mainly on economic cooperation during his visit. According to Die Zeit, his schedule includes a reception with the German-Egyptian Economic Commission, talks with industrial giants like Daimler, ThyssenKrupp and Airbus, as well as a possible deal on a major power plant and a wind turbine factory valued at 10 billion euros (about LE 84 billion).

Politics are unlikely to be ignored, however. Concerns voiced about Egypt's domestic policy only grew louder when news arrived on Tuesday afternoon that Egyptian activist Mohammed Lotfy had been prohibited from leaving Cairo by the Egyptian authorities. According to Süddeutsche Zeitung, he was supposed to speak at a meeting with the Greens, a major opposition party, who criticised the move and claimed that "the true situation in Egypt" was being concealed.

The German press has echoed this concern. Egypt’s importance in the Middle East may be unquestionable, but its current president's domestic policy is not, agree most major German newspapers. This must be made crystal clear during the presidential visit, they say.

Concern over El-Sisi’s “iron hand”

On May 19, President of the German Parliament Norbert Lammert declared that he would refuse to meet President El-Sisi during his visit. He justified his decision by citing alleged human rights abuses and the “unbelievable amount of death sentences”, in particular those against Muslim Brotherhood leaders delivered in May, in a letter to Egypt's ambassador in Berlin.

Egypt has rejected criticism directed at the trial of the Brotherhood leaders, saying that the critiques reflect “ignorance and inaccuracy” and that the defendants were tried before a civil criminal court, guaranteeing them a fair trial.Yet the German commentaries seem to reflect a more general concern.

Annette Ranko of Süddeutsche, for instance, claims an article written on Monday that the political system in Egypt is "no longer merely authoritarian; it is starting to show totalitarian traits […] encouraging citizens to look for 'foreign elements' in every corner".

Referring to the purported "arbitrary police brutality", she further claims that "the Sisi regime [sic] no longer seems capable to control the violence that it itself creates", declaring that many Egyptians arrested under El-Sisi's presidency were neither Islamists nor in any way politically active.

Similar claims have been made in Germany with regards to the recent ban on Egyptian football ultras and their organisations. This ban came under focus as members of the Egyptian National Security were invited to attend the German Cup final on May 30 for training purposes, according to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

Omid Nouripour, foreign policy speaker for the Greens and leader of a fan grouping of the football team Eintracht Frankfurt, spoke of an "insult" and a "contribution to repression that must be cancelled" in an interview with FAZ prior to the game.

Aside from this training, Die Zeit reports that at least six more conferences for German and Egyptian security forces and secret services are scheduled for this year alone, and that negotiations on a police cooperation treaty were to be resumed.

The German media also highlights the previous hampering of activities of German organisations in Egypt as a lingering source of mistrust. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Cairo offices were raided in December 2011, after Egyptian prosecutors suspected that the foundation had acted without a license and had received illegal funds from abroad, according to Die Zeit. Two of its workers were found guilty by an Egyptian court in absentia in June 2013, along with 41 other NGO workers. The Naumann Foundation’s activities were also suspended in June 2013.

Both foundations were conducting civic education programmes in Egypt, and the trials are seen as a sham by the German press. Yet, as Martin Gehlen deplored in a commentary on Monday, German attempts at solving this issue have been fruitless, and he fears that this could remain a lasting problem in restoring good relations with Egypt.

The risks of political support

Criticism of President El-Sisi’s policy is nothing new in the German media. What seems to have changed with the events discussed above is their insistence on the domestic policies of the Egyptian government. Discussion on the importance of Egypt as a source of stability for the Middle East, as well as on the country's growing role as a leader in the region, have been eclipsed in favour of a focus on what journalists from all major German newspapers seem to perceive as a stifled civil society.

The German government, on the other hand, has not deviated from its commitment to close ties with Egypt. “There is no alternative to dialogue with one of our most important partners in the Arab world, as it plays a central role in the stability and the security of the region,” Steinmeier told Die Zeit during his visit, and President El-Sisi's visit in Germany is the logical continuation of this dialogue.

The newspaper's publisher-editor Josef Joffe expressed a similar position with regards to President El-Sisi's visit. "How are we doing with the Chinese head of state, Xi Jinping?" he asked rhetorically. The Chinese leader was received with much pomp in Berlin in spite of being an "enemy of freedom", as China is an important commercial partner for Germany.

Joffe concludes that "preaching is easier than politics", and that Chancellor Merkel made the right decision in inviting President El-Sisi, just as she invited Jinping. Yet several other commentators have questioned this approach, and whether Egypt’s importance justifies promoting the country.

Ranko, for instance, estimates that President El-Sisi's visit "is a milestone on [his] way to a longed-for international presentability", but further claims that this could undermine Germany's influence in the region, as it would estrange itself from the very civil society that Germany had actually pledged to support after the 2011 revolution.

"The strategy of Western states to support dictators in order to guarantee at least some security and stability in the Near East has already failed once", she reminds her readers, referring to Western support for former President Hosni Mubarak.

The most interesting concern being voiced in the German press, however, is that the recognition of President El-Sisi's rule might not prove merely unhelpful, but even self-defeating for all parties involved.

Annette Ranko points to a growing impression in Egypt, fostered by the government, that the 2011 revolution was plotted by the West and carried out by Egyptian traitors, in order to "destroy Egypt economically and politically […], thus making the country subject to Western interests in the region".

This discourse is seen as problematic by German journalists for several reasons.

Paul-Anton Krüger, Ranko's colleague and Süddeutsche's correspondent in Cairo, claims that President El-Sisi's "either you are with us or you are against us" policy will ultimately fail to bring Egypt the stability and high standard of living to which the country aspires.

"The history of the Federal Republic teaches us that prosperity and stability grows best in a pluralistic and democratic society under the rule of law," he writes.

This echoes the words of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as quoted by Die Zeit after his visit in Egypt in May: "Extremism thrives where people are isolated from political and economic participation."

Ranko further points out that Germany has nothing to gain from giving legitimacy to President El-Sisi, as it would entail legitimising a government that she claims is domestically demonising the West.

While "it is selling its policy under another guise abroad", namely that of fighting Islamist extremism, Ranko claims that domestically this policy is justified by a "threat scenario" in which the West prominently figures.

In this light, German support for a government that she claims is "structurally fostering anti-Western polemic" might prove "doubly absurd".

It remains to be seen to what extent German leaders will echo this criticism during the visit.

President Joachim Gauck has assured Die Zeit that he will conduct "an open and critical dialogue" with his Egyptian counterpart. Yet as Chancellor Merkel's foreign policy strategy resembles an "unconditional readiness for dialogue", as summed up by journalist Sonja Zekri, the impact of this dialogue might remain limited, at least in the eyes of the German opposition.  

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