Germany softens stance on Egypt, despite the hard truths

Germany softens stance on Egypt, despite the hard truths
Comment: Relations hit a low last year when Berlin criticised Cairo's human rights record. The story has now changed, even if the record hasn't, says Sibylle Bandler.

3 min read
07 May, 2015
Steinmeier met the grand imam of al-Azhar, a religious body close to the regime [AFP]

At the end of April last year, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier summoned the Egyptian ambassador, Mohammed Higazy, about the 683 death sentences handed out following anti-coup protests.

Steinmeier said that the sentences represented "a mockery of democratic principles".

The statement marked a low in German-Egyptian relations, already strained by previous public chastising of Cairo by Berlin, and an EU freeze on arms exports.

But fast-forward a year and Steinmeier was seen hastily climbing the stairs of the Ittihadiya Palace to meet Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the first time, and stating: "There is no alternative but to remain in dialogue with one of our most important partners in the Arab world."

Pressed to elaborate, the minister offered the standard reply: "Egypt plays a central role in the stability and security of the region".

In meetings with Egypt's president and Steinmeier's counterpart, Samih Shukry, the German foreign minister discussed the situation in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Egypt, with by far the biggest population in the Arab world, carries huge weight in the region. And it isn't just Germany that is courting Egypt; US and Russian delegations also visited Cairo recently.

So why is Egypt so important to Germany, and other outside powers? The answer, predictably, are commerce and weapons.

The German energy giant, Siemens, signed a $4.5bn deal with Egypt last month to build power stations and wind energy turbines. Preparations for a state visit from the Egyptian president to Berlin were made shortly after.

Manufacturer Herrenknecht will also deliver tunnel-boring machines to Egypt.

Reluctant dealings

Overall, the EU and Germany still are still cautious in their dealings with Cairo.

After leaving the palace, the German foreign minister and his entourage battled its way through thick Cairo traffic to connect with the civilian world.

In Cairo they met with representatives of Egypt's myriad political parties and of non-governmental organisations.

     The human rights situation in Egypt was, once again, just as catastrophic as it had been under Mubarak.
Konrad Adenauer Foundation report

Some 17 Egyptian and foreign NGOs are being kept under close eye by the country's security forces due to their critical views of the regime.

The work of Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation (with close ties to the Christian Democratic Union), for example, was subjected to legal harassment following the publication of a critical report on the Sisi government.

"The human rights situation in Egypt was, once again, just as catastrophic as it had been under former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and that the ruling military leaders are trying to delay or even obstruct the political transition," its report read.

This is not the kind of thing that Egypt's rulers like to read.

While Steinmeier said a compromise to protect German NGOs was about to be forged, Egyptian NGOs remain completely at the mercy of the regime.

Shortly before flying back to Berlin, Steinmeier met a handful of Egyptian activists, both secular and religious, who had played key roles in the 2011 revolution.

Today they find themselves pushed mercilessly into the sidelines.

They told the German minister it had become virtually impossible to host any political seminars or lectures and that much and that they have been effectively forced to work "underground". 

Many of their fellow activists had been jailed, and one activist told Steinmeier that conditions for them were worse than under Mubarak. 

Right in that moment, the minister found himself confronted with the complex contradictions of his visit. 

It could be that the closer the German government gets to the Egyptian regime, the louder the voices of dissent will be - which will leave Berlin in a difficult position.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.