In search of Germany's Middle East policy

In search of Germany's Middle East policy

Analysis: Germany's government has come under fire for its Middle East policy - or lack of same
5 min read
16 April, 2015
Protestors in Berlin mark the anniversary of the Rabaa Square killings in 2014 [Anadolu]

Amid the escalation of violent conflict in the Middle East, the German government is courting Egypt's president, backs Saudi-Arabia and supplies weapons to the Peshmerga. Economics trump human rights. The country's chance of acting as mediator in the region is waning.


Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has been in office for almost a year. Last month, German economics minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) handed him an invitation by Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) for an official visit to Germany — an unexpected turnaround from the government's previous position to not invite Sisi until Egypt holds parliamentary elections.


Observers in Berlin are wondering whether this change of heart is the start of a new government line on Egypt.  A visit to Cairo over Easter by Volker Kauder, leader of the CDU/CSU faction of the German grand coalition government, suggests just that. Kauder met with Sisi in the capital and pinned the reason for meeting mostly to economic issues.  "The Egyptian government is seeking to attract more German investors in the near future," he said, "and such efforts should be supported by government."


His explanation did not convince critics in Berlin. Germany's opposition parties called Kauder's as well as Gabriel's recent trips to Egypt "tasteless". Clearly the government puts higher priority on business ties than on human rights, Christine Buchholz, member of The Left Party (Die Linke) said.


The Green Party's foreign affairs spokesperson Omid Nouripour demanded an explanation for the government's change of heart. Extending an invitation to Sisi now, he told Deutsche Welle, removed any incentive for the Egyptian president to hold democratic elections any time soon. While his party was not opposed to holding direct talks with Sisi per se, what mattered were the details. Any offers of cooperation should be tied to strict conditions, he said. These conditions should include at a minimum "the fostering of democratic structures, the end of media censorship, and, first and foremost, the release of all political prisoners," Nouripour demanded.


Similar -- but less forceful-- sentiment was expressed by Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), which together with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) currently forms Germany's grand coalition government. The SPD's Middle East expert Rolf Mützenich told Deutsche Welle he supported Kauder's trip to Cairo because he shared his long-standing concern over the conditions of Christians living in Egypt. However, he did not support Chancellor Merkel's decision to extend an invitation to Sisi for an official visit to Germany before Egypt held democratic elections.


"I believe it would serve us well to not repeat the old mistake of merely looking for anchors of stability in the region. It cost us our credibility in the past," Mützenich told Deutsche Welle. Instead it was imperative to demand that Egypt adhere to international human rights. A first step in the right direction would be for Sisi to grant amnesty to all wrongly convicted demonstrators, Mützenich proposed.




The Greens' foreign affairs spokesman Nouripour also sharply criticized Germany's role in the escalating conflict in Yemen. The fact that Germany was siding with Saudi Arabia in this conflict was absurd, he charged. Yemen was a multi-layered nation with complex problems that could not be solved through external military interventions. By supporting Saudi Arabia, Germany was gambling away the opportunity to act as a mediator in this conflict — a role for which it was well suited, given its long-standing development role in Yemen.


Meanwhile, Germany's foreign office described the Saudi-led air attacks on Houthi militia in the south of Yemen as "legitimate".  Martin Schäfer, a spokesman for the office, said Yemen's government had reached out to the international community for help amid an "extraordinarily threatening situation". According to international law, it was legitimate to provide emergency assistance in response to pleas by a democratically elected head of state, Schäfer said.


However, SPD foreign affairs expert Mützenich, conceded that Saudi Arabia itself had contributed greatly to the current chaos in Yemen, given it treated Shia Houthis as agents of Iran that needed to be defeated in order to fend off Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the region.  Yet, the situation in Yemen was not about executing a proxy war between Riyadh and Teheran but about internal civil conflict, Mützenich argued. "Yemen is a highly complicated structure with a very long history," he stressed.




Greens spokesman Nouripour took a similar view of the situation in Iraq. The German government, he said, had not contributed to the stabilization of the country. Instead it had delivered weapons to Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, in order to support Kurdish fighters against advances by the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS).


However, those very weapons were then used by Pershmerga to drive out Sunnis from Kirkuk. "The message to Sunnis is: we don't want you here,'" Nouripour said. "That's a terrible and fatal message."  Only if Sunnis were integrated into Iraq's Shia-dominated power structures could the nation be stabilized and deal with threats from IS, Nouripour argued.


SPD's Mützenich, meanwhile, had little to offer on how best to proceed in Iraq in order to stop civil conflict and terrorists. He said he personally had been skeptical of supplying arms to Pershmerga, in particular since the Yazidis under threat had not been rescued by Pershmerga but by fighters of the banned Kurdish worker party PKK and its allied Syrian Democratic Union Party. Asked what he considered to the best way to fight IS in Iraq, Mützenich said he had no answer.