German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock discussed many issues during her visit to Egypt last Saturday but it was her remarks linking German arms exports to Egypt with human rights that attracted attention.
“Egypt does not build its international relations on conditionality, but on non-intervention in the internal affairs of others within the framework of the UN and international conventions,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri. “Egypt turned to Germany for arms acquisitions in order to protect its national security and borders. Egypt has never acted aggressively.”
Shoukri was addressing a press conference alongside the German foreign minister who ended her three-day trip to the Middle East with a visit to Cairo. She met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and her Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukri.
Shoukri pointed out that a militarily strong Egypt contributes to security and stability in the region and in Europe. “The actions our naval forces have undertaken since 2016 to obstruct any type of illegal migration to Europe is something that I believe matters to our partners in Europe. Egypt’s confrontation against terrorist organisations has prevented them from infiltrating Europe. These are the aspects of the relationship between Egyptian weapons acquisitions and protecting European interests,” he said.
Baerbock’s remarks did not come as a surprise to Egypt. The German government, under Angela Merkel, used similar terms after the 30 June Revolution that overthrew Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Since then, Egyptian-German military diplomacy has gone beyond weapons deals, including the sale of the German made Type-209 submarine, to the joint manufacture of the MEKO class frigate. This is the second major joint naval defence manufacturing project with a European power, the first being with France and the French-designed Gowind class corvette.
While Egypt is keen to continue to develop cooperation with its European partners in order to strengthen its defence capacities, defence and armaments experts in Egypt say that Egypt is also able to further diversify its sources of weapons. Egypt now has many alternatives, and no longer has to knock on the door of any particular power.
Egypt has faced linkage between arms and human rights from other powers. It was a French position, at first, only for Egypt and France to conclude defence deals that included the Mistral helicopter carrier and other naval vessels, Rafale fighter jets, a defence satellite, and the above-mentioned joint manufacturing project. Washington has also introduced restrictions to arms sales and military aid to Egypt in connection with human rights, deducting $130 million in military assistance to Egypt last year, but agreements still went ahead. The current administration has approved the sale of C-130 Super Hercules aircraft and three SPS-48 radars to Egypt.
It is important to bear in mind the distinction between overriding mutual interests, such as the role Egypt’s military plays in countering and reducing major threats to the region and to Europe, and the attitudes of political parties. For example, the German foreign minister’s remarks reflect the position of the Green Party to which she belongs and which is now part of the ruling coalition in Berlin. Partisan outlooks also play a part in the formulation of congressional policy in the US. Governments, however, have acquired a more nuanced understanding through practice and experience. They realise that Egypt’s sensitivity to the linkage stems from its principled opposition to outside intervention in domestic affairs, and from the terrorist threat it faced directly. They also acknowledge that Egypt has successfully reduced the threat of terrorism in Sinai and elsewhere with the utmost professionalism, and that major development projects in Sinai have been instrumental in ending the peninsula’s role as a recruitment ground for extremism.
In many cases that have political dimensions, such as those involving activists, Egyptian authorities have shown flexibility, releasing some activists following judicial proceedings, and reviewing other cases. Moreover, some observers in Egypt have urged accelerating the judicial process. Nevertheless, there are limits on how far it is possible to influence the independent judiciary, which draws a distinction, based on law, between ordinary activists and those suspected of involvement in terrorist activity or membership of designated terrorist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Other Arab countries have encountered experiences similar to Egypt’s. Saudi Arabia and the UAE faced a problem with Washington in connection with the war in Yemen after President Joe Biden took office. Before the year was out, the Biden administration realised that these two countries faced a greater danger than it initially perceived and, accordingly, the US administration is now helping to strengthen their defence capacities in order to confront the threat emanating from Yemen and the Houthi militia there.
There is no reason why Egypt is obliged to adopt Western outlooks with regard to court cases, or towards human rights in general, and it appears that crucial mutual interests, combined with the very real national security concerns of the countries in question, have opened the eyes of Western governments to the pressures its allies face and to the fact that human rights allegations are often made by parties that are hostile to Western powers and their interests.
The German foreign minister discussed many issues while in Cairo. Egypt is a major partner of Germany, reflected in the fact that Berlin has exported more arms to Egypt than to any other country. Economics is not the sole factor here. Berlin appreciates the role Egypt has played in a number of major issues, not least the Libyan question, one of the main items on Baerbock’s agenda during her visit. Germany hosted the international conferences that gave rise to the agreements known as the Berlin process, the internationally backed roadmap which aims to restore stability to Libya.
Egypt’s rejection of interference in its domestic affairs does not mean it is indifferent to Western criticisms of its human rights record. In fact, Egypt has already demonstrated a determination to improve in this area, as evidenced by the National Strategy for Human Rights that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi introduced in September, and by the actions taken by the National Council for Human Rights. These policies show that developing human rights is important to Egypt and Egyptian interests, per se, and not a response to outside pressure.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.