By Mohamed Selim
“Germany’s government believes that Egypt ought to maintain the basic values of human rights for all its citizens, engage in a dialogue with all the opposing political factions and respect the religious freedoms of all Egyptians.” Those were the words of Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in her 30 January 2013 presser with Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi, which took place in Berlin. Will the incumbent president of Egypt hear such statements from Chancellor Merkel on his visit to Berlin which takes place today and tomorrow? I believe he will, yet not with such a tone.
Chancellor Merkel is facing criticism from members of the German opposition, particularly the leftist parties, Die Grünen (the Greens) and Die Linke (The Left), for her reception of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Berlin this week. Parliamentarian Franziska Brantner, member of the Bundestag from the Greens who visited Egypt last week, has criticised the German government for inviting the Egyptian president at a time where the entire democratic process in the Arab country is on hold. She even criticised Germany’s oldest party, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is in a grand-coalition with Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party (CDU).
She accuses its leader and the Economy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel (who met President Al-Sisi in Sharm El-Sheikh back in March during the Economic Conference, and is scheduled to meet Al-Sisi again today) of ignoring the democratic principles that Germany should propagate in return for conducting business deals with Egypt. In one of the interviews she has conducted after her return from Cairo, she told the Stuttgarter Zeitung on 1 June, that she believed the situation in Egypt at the moment is “worse than it was under the deposed president Mubarak”. All such political backlash in Germany comes amid and after the refusal of the Bundestag President, Norbert Lammert from Chancellor Merkel’s own party (CDU), to meet President Al-Sisi during his scheduled trip.
Why is then Chancellor Merkel and her government insisting on meeting President Al-Sisi, whereby according to a statement released on 29 May from her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, “the Federal Chancellor will discuss the internal situation in Egypt, along with the bilateral relations over lunch at the Federal Chancellery”. Merkel is a pragmatic politician who practices realpolitik. She has elevated herself and her country to lead Europe. She has led Europe, along with the United States, in imposing sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Crimea annexation.
Yet, she is still in perpetual contact with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and was the only Western leader to travel to Moscow on a symbolic visit to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Yet, in order to manage this staged appearance, she refused to attend the Russian grand parade (which President Al-Sisi and other Asian leaders, including the Chinese President attended) and insisted on travelling to Moscow the next day to lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She conducted a press conference with Putin, where she reiterated her firm stance and rhetoric against Russia’s expansionist ambitions.
All the same, Merkel prefers confrontation than cancellation. She has met the Chinese president and his premier more than once in the past year both in Berlin and Beijing, regardless of the criticism she received from members of the Bundestag and/or the German press. Her motivation for such confrontation is, aside from the interests of her country, forcing change through dialogue.
All depends on the stakes at hand. In her press conference with Al-Sisi, Merkel will call for the parliamentary elections scheduled at the end of this year in Egypt to take place sans any intervention from the regime. Respect of human rights for all Egyptians and that of the basic rights, including the right to protest will also be mentioned. Her tone, choice-of-words and calls upon Al-Sisi, nonetheless, will be mild and not as straightforward as with the last Egyptian president to visit Berlin, Morsi. At a time where the Middle East and North Africa is in turmoil, Merkel needs Al-Sisi and needs to secure his cooperation.
Al-Sisi’s visit to Berlin, in its preparations, wasn’t as easy to schedule and conduct, compared to his previous visits to Paris, Rome, Madrid and Athens. Germany’s position after the 30 June revolution was sceptical and in the aftermath of various incidents that took place in Egypt (among which is the 2013-issued five-years jail sentence in absentia for Andreas Jacobs who was the director of Konrad Adenauer Foundation representing the CDU, Merkel’s party). The visit, which was scheduled to take place after an elected parliament, was expedited to take place this week, whereas none of the Road Map principles, which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) proclaimed on 3 July 2013 (save the elections of President Al-Sisi, whom himself was the SCAF head) have been accomplished.
Yet, Merkel hastened and invited Al-Sisi for a state-visit. Two main reasons, that have nothing to do with expanding democracy in Egypt, are behind this hurried visit. In her first meeting with Al-Sisi on 22 January in Davos, Merkel made it clear. The priority of both countries is to counteract terrorism in the name of Islam, which is driving the region to the abyss. Their first meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) has placed Germany on the same footing with the current Egyptian regime; that democracy in Egypt and the Arab World ought to have a third priority, after fighting terrorism and re-establishing order and stability. Merkel has subscribed to Al-Sisi’s notion. And the cooperation between the two countries’ security agencies has been strengthened in the past months and weeks, in all matters related to stability. Sharing of intelligence and supporting the training of Egyptian police are now a priority. Merkel’s government aim is hence maintaining the status quo in the most populous Arab country and avert an explosion of the internal situation, which would have dire ramifications on the entire region.
And thus, is the second rationale for Merkel’s realpolitik. She needs Al-Sisi’s help in bringing Libya back to order. A neighbour to Egypt and one of the Arab Spring countries has been mired in chaos ever since the February 2011 revolution that ousted its 40-year dictator, yet failed in appointing a national unity government that represents all its citizens. Libya is, moreover, the main gateway for refugees fleeing the turmoil in the region and aspiring for a better future in Europe. Whether from Sub-Saharan Africa and/or the Arab World, thousands of refugees have made their way through Libya on course to Europe. The majority of them, around 203,000 refugees, sought asylum in Germany this year. Many Germans are against more refugees coming to their cities and villages, and Merkel knows that there is a general election in two years.
If she doesn’t attend to this impending problem, she might lose her hope of ruling Germany for a fourth term. She will rely on Egypt and its army in bringing order to Libya and curb the flow of refugees towards Europe through its ports. Egypt can also play an important role in fighting the smuggling gangs that organise such expeditions via rickety boats towards Europe’s shores. Germany’s borders aren’t at the Alps. It’s starting from Lampedusa; hundreds of kilometres away from the Egyptian borders. The first sign of such an emerging Egyptian role was last week’s Cairo conference of the Libyan tribal leaders, who have pledged their support for a unified, stable and terror-free Libya.
Merkel knows that the Arab Spring, save in Tunisia, has failed. She has to deal with the incumbent Arab leaders, who can bring back security, stability and order to a region marred by four years of civil strife, ethnic wars and terrorism. Al-Sisi needs Merkel to score another political point against his political opponents, whether in Egypt or in the region (particularly the Turkish President). Merkel will rely on Al-Sisi to bring her security, both in the region and at home. Al-Sisi will rely on Merkel for further global legitimacy. Or, as the theory of realpolitik would have described their Berlin meeting, it’s a win-win-situation.
Mohamed Selim Khalil is a media scholar with a research emphasis on Political Communication in the Arab World, University of Osnabrück, Germany. Twitter @moselim