Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was recently welcomed in Berlin amidst the most serious human rights crisis in Egypt’s modern history. Many, especially in Egypt, saw the red carpet rolled out in Germany for the army general-turned-autocrat as a success for al-Sisi. But reaction he received in Berlin was mixed, and he cannot be so sure that his “stability” image will succeed on the international stage.
Just two years ago, the man now welcomed by the German president Joachim Gauck with full military honors led the Egyptian army in a coup that ousted the country’s first democratically elected president. In both his military and now presidential capacity, al-Sisi has presided over a massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, secular opposition movements, journalists and civil society. Violence and repression in Egypt today resemble “the darkest days of Mubarak’s three-decade rule” according to Amnesty International; protestors have been killed in mass, over 40,000 political prisoners are behind bars, torture is routine, and unfair trials have seen hundreds sentenced to death.
Given the dire situation, it is no surprise that Merkel’s invitation stirred controversy. International human rights groups urged the German Chancellor to publicly press al-Sisi on his abysmal rights record. A number of German politicians also voiced open condemnation. Two Green Party parliamentariansannounced that “by inviting Al-Sisi to Berlin, the German government is falling back into bad habits of supporting authoritarian rule.” From within Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), parliament president Norbert Lammert slammed al-Sisi by cancelling their scheduled meeting due to concerns about human rights and democratic stagnation. He told the German media outlet Deutsche Welle that he did not “know what the president of an elected parliament and the president of a country that is regrettably not led democratically have to talk about.”
Yet at the other end of the CDU spectrum, politicians countered such criticisms. Another prominent member of Merkel’s CDU party, Volker Kauder, sang al-Sisi’s praises on Egyptian television, calling him “credible” and “convincing”.
Al-Sisi met both hot and cold reactions from the public. Pro-Sisi and pro-Muslim Brotherhood crowds faced off outside the Chancellery, while a small contingent of “third-way” Egyptians and human rights activists protested. Homemade banners citing Egypt’s mass rights violations hung from some of Berlin’s buildings and bridges, while the German business community warmly welcomed the Egyptian delegation. Siemens was particularly enthusiastic about the visit, as the company sealed a deal worth €8 billion to provide gas and wind power plants to boost Egypt’s electricity production capacity by 50 percent. While rights activists railed against al-Sisi’s repressive policies, a wealthy businessman gave the opposite message in a two-page propaganda ad, “Egypt’s path to the future”, in the prominent Frankfurter Allgemeine that read: “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—A president with a vision.”
A special plane ferried more than 100 patriotic, pro-regime cultural ambassadors in a so-called “people’s delegation” to assist al-Sisi in projecting a positive image of popular support for his policies. Other Egyptians were selectively barred from travel in anticipation of critical remarks. Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Delegation for Rights and Freedoms, was stopped at the airport on 2 June, on his way to Berlin to participate in a hearing at the German Parliament on the human rights situation in Egypt. He was told he was not allowed to travel due to unspecified “security measures”, with no judicial ruling to back up the travel ban.
At the official press conference, the full range of reactions to al-Sisi’s visit were on display. When a 22-year-old German-born Egyptian student and journalist, Fagr Eladly, realized neither she nor anyone else would get to ask questions (only limited, pre-approved questions were allowed), she took matters into her own hands. She disrupted the press event, yelling out “He’s a murderer!” It may have been the first time the meticulously shielded president has been directly confronted with such vocal reproach. The press conference was cut short, as chants of “Down with military rule!” rang out against pro-Sisi calls of “Long live Egypt!” and security guards hurried the leaders away.
In the content of the press conference, Merkel stressed Egypt’s strategic importance and Germany’s priority to encourage “stability through economic development” and security cooperation. Despite expressing that the two states hold “differences of opinion” on human rights, she tightly circumscribed her criticism to the use of capital punishment, saying: “Under no circumstances, even with regard to terrorist activities, must people be sentenced to death.” Overall, Merkel maintained a conciliatory tone, noting that partners must talk about such matters without jeopardizing their ability to work “very, very closely on other issues.” As expected, al-Sisi brushed aside Merkel’s concerns about the death penalty as a matter for the Egyptian judiciary and out of his control. He asked for patience on matters of democratic reform, as Egypt faces difficult domestic and regional challenges.
Al-Sisi’s performance in Germany demonstrates his talent as a salesman — his product, stability. Since coming into office, al-Sisi has successfully peddled a platform of “stability first” as a palatable alternative to real, timely reforms. His broad branding efforts in this regard have been on display in Berlin before. This January I attended an “Expert briefing” by an Egyptian human rights delegation at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), where I was surprised to hear three voices argue in unison and in sympathy with al-Sisi, imploring international patience while he shored up stability and security before expected indicators of concrete democratic progress.
The timing of Germany’s invitation despite the delays in Egypt’s parliamentary elections — a previous condition set for such a visit — also led some to question Merkel’s motives. Some pundits have dubbed the invitation “a foreign policy mistake” and described Germany as “selling out” its values for profit. But in political diplomacy, engagement is the name of the game, and Merkel played her part deftly and as expected. The visit provided a platform for open discussion of al-Sisi’s record, one that some politicians and public audiences leveraged. Merkel did not push al-Sisi on his abuses, but she did not whitewash them either. Though al-Sisi may believe he leaves Berlin in triumph, his reputation is not completely unscathed.
The reactions to the trip in mainstream Egyptian media have been predictably positive. Al-Watan, a leading privately-owned newspaper, equated the trip with international approval for al-Sisi’s governance; it was “recognition of the June 30 revolution.” Another private news daily Al-Masry Al-Youm cited anonymous sources saying Merkel acknowledged the trip as confirmation that al-Sisi was not a military dictator, but a leader elected by the will of the people. The widely watched Egyptian television host Ahmed Moussa, who came to Berlin specially to cover the events, used a football metaphor to describe al-Sisi’s success, saying he had scored five goals in the match of Egyptian-German relations.
But though al-Sisi and his fans may believe the narrative presented in mainstream Egyptian press, the more motley opinions in international media coverage suggest that his efforts in recrafting his image abroad may not succeed so easily.
Allison West is a human rights lawyer and research associate at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.