Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, held off on hosting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but eventually gave in. As Europe’s largest economy continues exercising soft power, how does the Arab world’s most populous country fit into the mix?
Germany continues to reign as the EU’s economic and political powerhouse. This month, the G7 met in Schloss Elmau, Bavaria, to tackle issues ranging from Greece’s debt to fighting terrorism.
Yet, prior to the G7, a meeting of another sort took place. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made the fight against terrorism the central policy of his government. Yet, Chancellor Angela Merkel was reluctant to receive the Egyptian leader due to Germany’s longstanding aversion to human rights abuses, which have come hand in hand with Egypt’s new ruling order.
The Germany visit was at once a victory and a loss for Egypt’s international PR blitz. The country secured a key business deal, but efforts to smooth over human rights abuses fell short.
There are four areas that will dominate German-Egyptian relations as the two regional actors continue to adapt to the challenges swirling through the Middle East:
1. International legitimacy for Egypt
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi viewed the trip as a way to shore up support abroad and domestically. Included in the visit was a large entourage of leaders from Egypt’s entertainment and business sectors.
Despite the recent court rulings in favor of Mubarak and other former government figures, the regime is striving to ensure the military still maintains a perception of representing the popular interests of the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolution. The demolition of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters in Cairo indicates the old guard still aims to distance itself from the Mubarak era.
Traditional support from the United States is wavering. President Obama recently agreed to the annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, but not without a stinging criticism. The al-Sisi regime has turned to Russia and hopes the visit to the EU’s economic and political power, Germany, will balance out Egypt’s international standing as the West faces off with Russia.
2. Gestaltungsmächte (Shaping powers) und Übermacht (Dominance)
The policy of “leading from the middle” has fostered a European consensus, but so far yielded few results. With the UK and France scaling back their involvement, Germany has had to lead Europe through its crisis with Russia over Ukraine. Germany is increasingly being left to its own foreign policy devices.
As bilateral distrust and fatigue grows with the United States over the issue of spying, Germany will pursue its own course of action with the Arab world. Egypt, being the center of the region, is the perfect place to build this relationship.
According to the German-Arab Chamber Of Commerce, trade between Germany and Egypt was €4.5 billion in 2014. It is no surprise that Angela Merkel decided to proceed with the visit despite the fact that Germany’s political scene is divided on the issue. Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, a member of Angel Merkel’s CDU party, was critical of the visit on human rights grounds.
Europe is continuing to wrestle with the future of its Muslim community. Germany is hoping that strong ties with Egypt will allow it to prevent terrorist attacks from occurring within the EU. An estimated 5.8% of Germany’s population is Muslim, and the country is also the home to the Islamophobic movement PEGIDA.
3. Energy and Tourism
Egypt has been facing a fuel and energy crisis. Fuel subsidies are an estimated $13 billion annually for the Egyptian government. Egypt is still roughly 90% reliant on fossil fuels despite moving towards solar energy.
The $9 billion deal signed between Egypt and Siemens will see the construction of a new power plant in the Gulf of Suez and West Nile regions. This is a huge boost to Germany’s energy engineering sector since Germany has moved away from nuclear power and fossil fuels.
Egyptian solar energy will still continue to develop. Minister of Electricity, Mohamed Shaker, introduced a Feed-in Tariffs (FiT) plan to encourage the use of solar energy in the private sector. As the demand for solar panels increases for Egyptian companies like KarmSolar, Germany also stands to gain since the Siemens deal includes plans for expanded access to solar power.
Egypt is facing an uphill battle to revive its tourist industry. Since Germany is a vital part of Egypt’s efforts attract tourists, if attacks such as those at Luxor continue, Germans will be hesitant to visit the country. In 2014, German tourism generated 2 billion EGP
4. Human Rights and the Muslim Brotherhood
The disruption of the press conference by activists made it clear that though Egypt is a partner in Europe’s security efforts, the regime’s use of imprisonment, torture, and intimidation against political opponents will hinder the advancement of the German-Egyptian bilateral partnership.
The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) will continue, but it is only a matter of time before the winds of change shift in the Middle East. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (the MB’s key backer) are showing increasing signs of cooperation on Iraq and Syria. This could lead to a regional rebuke of the Egyptian regime’s harsh MB policy.
In his Berlin visit, President al-Sisi indicated that the capital punishment rulings against the jailed MB leaders were not final. Egypt has begun to change gears on its stance towards the Palestinian MB affiliated group, Hamas. The human rights issues, will not, however, prevent Germany from seeking to develop business ties.
For Germany’s security and business needs, Egypt represents an indispensable partner. However, as Germany takes on a larger international diplomatic role, it will be mindful of its own history in the Middle East and will tread carefully through the region.