Egypt: End the illusions!

 Gathering of opponents of the draft constitution close to the Presidential Palace
Teaser Image Caption
In the lead-up to a referendum for Egypt's draft constitution, thousands of demonstrators gathered both for and against the document. Those opposed to the draft gathered near the Presidential Palace in Cairo, 2012

The German federal government sees Egypt as a state that can guarantee regional stability. But especially the support of the regime as-Sisi increases the instability in the region. It's time for a new approach to Egypt.

It is time to rethink Germany’s policy on Egypt. The regime of President as-Sisi is not stable. The wall of fear created by the authoritarian regime with totalitarian tendencies is beginning to show cracks. The security situation is extremely tense. Since Egypt agreed to transfer the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, the string of public protests in Egypt has not abated.

Even the capital is not void of attacks attributable to “IS” itself or groups allied to it – most recently in the town of Helwan on 8 May. However, the legitimate war on terror has long become a pretense for the regime to engage in the unrestrained suppression of its critical civil society. The regime arrests human rights activists and journalists virtually every day. Even writers and artists are among the arrested Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International estimate the number of political prisoners to be 40,000 – the true figure is probably far higher, however. The brutal death by torture of Giulo Regeni, an Italian PhD student, is representative of the fate of countless Egyptian political prisoners.

And what about German policymakers? They have not reacted to these developments. Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Interior Minister de Maziere have actually portrayed a very different picture during their trips to Egypt in recent weeks. De Maziere calls Egypt an “indispensable ally in the war on international terror as well as on irregular migration”. He even presented the prospect of a possible security cooperation agreement. In turn, Vice-Chancellor Gabriel lauded as-Sisi as an impressive president and testified to Germany’s great political and economic interest in the regime by taking a 100-strong delegation of economic representatives with him. Gabriel has avoided publicly addressing systematic torture and brutal human rights violations. He has even ignored calls from within the SPD and trade union representatives urging him to use the case of Regeni as an opportunity to at least take a public stance. The Italian had been conducting research on independent trade unions in Egypt.

Within the top echelons of the SPD, lobbying for German contracts in spite of the catastrophic human rights situation in Egypt appears to be considered good realpolitik. In keeping with this, Gabriel and the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs paved the way, in 2015, for the “single biggest order ever for Siemens”. During his visit to Germany, as-Sisi concluded the contractwith Siemens aimed at raising Egypt’s energy generation by 50%. Siemens is using government-backed export credit guarantees to secure this eight billion euro megadeal. Should Egypt fail to meet its payment obligations, Germany’s taxpayers will then pick up the tab. Hedging business risks through government backing always presents an opportunity for Germany to press for the adherence to human rights as well as environmental and social standards. Once again, this opportunity went unused. Aside from the SPD’s Chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, Gerhard Schröder has also lobbied for German firms in Egypt. He tried to persuade as-Sisi to award the contract for expanding the Suez Canal to a German company.

The regime is escalating internal conflicts

The decisive argument for this cooperation is not just founded on supporting Germany’s economic interests. The German federal government sees Egypt as a state that can guarantee regional stability. It appears to be going out of its way to strengthen Egypt’s infrastructure as well as the regime – in spite of its disastrous domestic and security policies. The loss of another state in the region would certainly be a nightmare scenario. However, the German government must ask itself whether supporting the as-Sisi regime does not actually increase precisely the instability it is seeking to reduce.

Based on his media appearances, as-Sisi, for his part, no longer seems to be sure whether he has the situation in hand. On 5 May, he assured Egyptians so many times that they had “nothing to be afraid of” that they now fear the precise opposite from their president.

The regime is escalating internal conflicts instead of pursuing a policy of political inclusion. It is resorting to military violence and persecution by internal security services as the sole means of combating radicalization and resorting to repression on a massive scale. This is leading to a rise in the level of frustration felt within the population and to conflicts between individual institutions of the regime itself, which, in turn, could result in further violence.

Given this, it is advisable to end the policy of unconditionally backing as-Sisi – and not just on ethical and human rights grounds. From a pragmatic perspective, Germany and the EU should not repeat the errors made before the Arab Spring and cooperate with dictatorships that seemingly guarantee stability in the war against militant jihadism.

Instead, when awarding major business contracts involving publicly-funded credit guarantees, the German government should impose clearly-formulated human rights criteria and conditions. This would ensure that it does not legitimize the authoritarian and violent governmental practice of the as-Sisi regime and thus foster instability.

This approach includes Berlin publicly speaking out far more explicitly against the extreme human rights violations and emphatically lobbying for the release of political prisoners. The German government must press for the “Anti-Protest” law to be amended. This law is extensively used to suppress peaceful freedom of expression and condemns critics to absurd imprisonment sentences in outrageous trials.

In doing so, the German government can follow the resolution passed on Egypt and the death of Giulio Regeni by the European Parliament on 10 March 2016. And it should lobby to put Egypt on the agenda of the EU Foreign Affairs Council. Tentatively scheduled for 20 June 2016, the consultations on Egypt were postponed to a later date. The Council should express strong criticism of the human rights violations in the country and renew its conclusions of August 2013 in which the member states agreed to prevent the export of equipment that is clearly being used for internal repression.


The german version of this article was first published on 28.05.2016 as a guest post in Der Tagesspiegel.