On an inspection visit to Aswan governorate, the head of the European Union (EU) Delegation to Egypt Christian Berger toured EU-supported projects. One such project, of which the EU has been a main sponsor since its launch in 2020, is the Aswan International Women’s Film Festival (AIWFF). An NGO initiative held in collaboration with the ministries of culture and tourism as well as the National Council for Women (NCW), the sixth AIWFF (23-28 February) had “A World Free from Sexual Exploitation” as its theme, and featured films by 12 EU members.
Also with EU support, for the third year in a row AIWFF is providing workshop training, with 70 beginners (over 75 percent female) and 300 filmmakers benefiting in total. The EU also gives a prize to the best film highlighting women’s issues from EU and European neighbourhood countries. In this context it recognised both established artists and up-and-coming talents.
According to the Austria-born diplomat, the EU partnership with AIWFF reflects a commitment to women’s empowerment, particularly through art.
“Cinema is a universal language that has a significant influence on how societies perceive issues like gender equality and women’s role in the society. From the EU perspective, gender equality is a founding value. We work at global, regional and country levels to support partnerships that promote and protect the rights of women. In Egypt we have built longstanding partnerships with national and development partners and with civil society to support women’s voices, participation, and the elimination of gender-based violence. We commend Egypt’s efforts to promote women’s empowerment in various fields, including art and culture. Capitalising on cinema as a soft power is crucial for positive change in any society.”
Berger’s tour also included a visits to the the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)-supported Basketry Cluster, the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET Egypt)-supported Mohammed Hussain Helal Technical Secondary School, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBERD)-supported Al Bargasy for Desert Coolers, which manufactures coolers based on chilled-water and straw technology serving both ecological and environmental EU goals.
He attended a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)-supported musical performance as part of a family planning awareness campaign, and an Om Habiba Foundation (OHF)-organised Civil Society Organisations (CSO) meeting as part of a one-day review of the EU-funded CSO-LA project (Empowering Local Development Dynamics (ILDD) in Aswan. But the main purpose still was AIWFF.
“We visited a number of projects that actually employed people but we also visited technical vocational schools that prepared people to find jobs in the marketplace. We also saw a company that is producing cooling equipment with a very strong environmental aspect. The three main themes of the visit were job creation, supporting women and young people, and environmental issues. And I must say that the three, four projects that we saw, are doing exactly what we thought was necessary, and of course all of those ideas and projects are in line with the Egyptian development plan, the sustainable development goals of the United Nations and our development aims in this country.”
Commenting on the outbreak of war in Ukraine during his visit, Berger said, “We know very well what war means. We have come out of 1,000 years of war among European countries and that is why the European Union after the WWII was created following, the initiative of Robert Schuman [1886-1963], the French foreign minister who said that this cannot happen again. We had many wars in the 19th century and civilians suffered the most. Any war is a tragedy for families, for women in particular, for mothers, sisters, daughters. And we must do what we can to prevent it.”
Berger assumed his Cairo post in September 2020, at the height of the Covid crisis, which necessitated new strategies and a focus on the pandemic’s social-economic impact.
“Very early on the EU launched a program to support job creation and companies based on small and medium-size enterprises which are the backbone of the European economy to create jobs. The other and equally important step was to open borders so trade could take place across borders, because we saw a massive disruption in the supply chain. The third strategy was solidarity, that the world has to stand together to find a vaccine. So the European Union launched a fundraising conference in which 60 billion Euros were raised to develop a vaccine and companies produced the vaccine, and now we are rolling it out both in the EU and to our partners across the world.”
In this regard, eliminating the illegal immigration and enhancing opportunities for legal immigration particularly for the young was a key concern. According to the ambassador, migration is a very important topic for the EU, and there is great cooperation with Egypt on how to prevent unregulated migration and promote legal migration.
“Studying and promoting educational migration for us is very important. Last week we had the European Union-African Union summit, with different topics of discussion, and one of them was how can we promote legal migration particularly through education. One of our best projects and programs ever in the European Union is the Erasmus program by which we bring students to the Europe for half a year or for a little bit longer, but it is not only students, any young people can come, people who want to learn a trade, or want to study or go to school, or those who want to work in a civil society organisation. This is something that we also offered our partners in North Africa and the Middle East, including Egypt. This is one way of promoting legal migration for education and also for enhancing intercultural dialogue.”
Berger believes the Middle East is the cradle of European civilisation, and the cradle of civilisation itself. “There are a lot of cultural links between Europe in general and the Middle East. Of course one value that we all share is the value of a decent and healthy life. And I think that we see in particular now with the Corona pandemic that there is something we have in common with our partners in the Middle East, North Africa, and across the world, which is a very strong bond that we have in order to overcome this pandemic.”
Regarding the cultural, social, and religious barriers the EU finds challenging in Egypt and how they deal with them, Berger says understanding those barriers is a key to working on and around them. “One of those challenges is to finance cultural and educational projects. The other aspect is to get people to take part in what we do, as raising awareness is very important. We have a range of means, but once we have identified what yhe barriers are, there are different ways to solve the problems.”
On the other hand, he adds, there are always differences and that is the beauty of life: that we have different approaches to things.
“We need first of all to understand the differences, and then to allow ourselves to bridge the differences. We are not so far apart as the European Union and Egypt. It is just across the Mediterranean, so there are not really deep cultural differences. But of course the differences have to be respected, and to be taken into account. Once you know them it is possible. Also we have to see those differences over time. Europe was not the same as it is today. It took a while to develop. And I am sure it is the same here. The important thing is that we don’t stand still, we keep developing things and trying to come together with the same understanding. There are of course international agreements and international conventions that help us to reach these goals and I think this is what we have to work on. We do this in a constant dialogue with our partners either here in Egypt or anywhere else in the world to discuss these issues.”
In this regard, Berger insists that the EU position is clear: “We believe in freedom of expression, freedom of art, and freedom of culture but at the same time you need to respect cultural differences even in the EU, and in many of the European member states. You have to find a very fine balance between freedom of expression and insulting somebody. You have to find the right balance between those two things, and again it is something that changes over time. Even in our countries we had these issues, and we had different times. We have a constant dialogue with our partners in Egypt on these issues.”
Over the five days of the tour (22-26 February) Berger was accompanied by his spouse Marilena Berger, who contributed much interaction and encouragement. “Without her many things that I have done I could not do,” Berger says. “First of all she is Greek, and I am from Austria. She comes from a country that is not very far from Egypt. We spent most of our time in the Middle East, and also in Turkey, so it was very important to be with someone who could advise me and who could tell me about social sensitivities like the interpretation of body language, and how to drink coffee the proper way. She was extremely helpful. Very often I think she is the better diplomat because she has brought with her all of this cultural understanding that is very important and necessary for the type of job I do.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.