Looking Ahead for German-Egyptian Relations

Berlin Plans for Post-Mubarak Era

By Severin Weiland in Berlin

Hosni Mubarak and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the Egyptian president's visit to Berlin in March 2010
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Hosni Mubarak and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the Egyptian president’s visit to Berlin in March 2010

After years of turning a blind eye, politicians in Germany are admitting that Berlin did too little to pressure Egypt’s authoritarian regime to undertake democratic reforms. President Hosni Mubarak had long been considered a guarantor of peace in the Middle East. Now the German political establishment is considering what the next Egyptian government might bring.
Hosni Mubarak admires Germany. The 82-year-old Egyptian president has made a number of official visits, meeting with the German president, the chancellor and the foreign minister. Notably, he has also come here twice for operations in German hospitals. In March, he had his gall bladder operated on in Heidelberg, just one day after meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It was an expression of the trust he has — in German medicine and in the country itself.
For many years, German-Egyptian relations appeared to have few problems. Above all, they were stable. Because of its strategic situation in the Middle East, Egypt has long been a focal point of German development policy.
Mubarak may have ruled his country in an authoritarian manner, but many politicians in Germany considered that to be a lesser evil. They talked about the issue of human rights violations, as was the case during Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle’s first meeting with Mubarak last year in Cairo. But to most Western diplomats, the Mubarak system was considered a bulwark against fundamentalist Islam. And Egypt is the only Arab state that has signed a peace treaty with Israel. In a powder keg region, it has been one of the most reliable and calculable powers.
West Faces Shift in Policy

Now, though, the man has ruled the country for 30 years is at risk of getting deposed. Nor can one rule out the possibility any longer that he may soon be forced into exile as recently happened to Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And that leaves Germany — and the entire West — facing a significant shift in its foreign policy. The mass protests, which are set to grow with calls for a million strong march on Tuesday, have forced Western leaders to strike a new note. Over the weekend, Chancellor Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron called on Mubarak to embark on a process of transformation “which should be reflected in a broad-based government and in free and fair elections.”

German politicians are trying to find a balance between dealing with a Mubarak government that is still in power and an opposition that is becoming more open and self-confident.

“We are not standing on a domestic policy side, but rather on the side of values, human rights, democracy, civil rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press,” said Westerwelle, who is currently visiting Israel. The foreign minister is there for long-planned German-Israeli government consultations.

The situation in the region, which could have serious implications for Israel’s security if Mubarak falls, has been a major topic in talks between Westerwelle, Merkel and their Israeli colleagues. Both Netanyahu and Merkel expressed their concern about the developments after a meeting on Monday.

“In a state of chaos, an organized Islamic group can take over a country. It has happened. It happened in Iran,” Netanyahu said. “A takeover of oppressive regimes of extreme Islam violates human rights, grinds them to dust … and in parallel also poses a terrible danger to peace and stability.”

Merkel urged Mubarak to show restraint. “The same applies here as we would say to any other country: Freedom of speech is necessary. Peaceful treatment of demonstrators is necessary. We must demand that and we will continue to demand that,” she said.

Perceived Stability on the Nile

Foreign policy experts in Germany’s main political parties in Berlin are taking a very self-critical view this week of past relations with Egypt.

“German politicians also supported authoritarian regimes like Mubarak’s because of a perceived stability — out of fear of a possible accession to power by Islamic forces,” said Kerstin Müller, a former deputy minister in the German Foreign Ministry with the Green Party. “As part of that, they turned a blind eye when the regime committed serious human rights violations.”

Ruprecht Polenz, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the German federal parliament with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: “Mentions of reforms and contempt for human rights always played a role in Germany-Egyptian talks — even if, unfortunately, there were no obvious improvements in the reality.”

So what will happen now? “No matter what, the European governments and the European Union must agree to new policies,” said Rolf Mützenich, the foreign policy spokesman in parliament for the center-left Social Democratic Party. But he also added that conclusions shouldn’t be drawn too quickly. “We still don’t know what consequences the popular uprisings in the individual countries will have,” he said.

But there’s a bigger fear lurking in the back of politicians’ minds: What will happen if the Islamist movement capitalizes on the protests? Or if it becomes part of the next government? If the West calls for democratic elections, then it must also be prepared to accept the results, insofar as they are free and fair, said Mützenich.

“The attitude during the last election in the Palestinian territories did serious damage to our image in the Arab nations,” the Social Democrat said, referring to the electoral victory by the radical Islamist Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2006, which most governments in the West refused to accept. “That’s why we should not discriminate against this popular uprising by suggesting it is Islamically motivated,” he advised.

‘The Maladministration Cannot Be Eliminated Overnight’

But many German politicians are already considering a worst-case scenario in which Islamic forces will come to power after Mubarak. “A government in Egypt that could possibly include the Muslim Brotherhood must accept the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and use it as its working basis,” the Green Party’s Müller said.

Christian Democrat Polenz said he would like to see the West reiterate to Egypt that the country must urgently undertake democratic reforms and adopt the rule of law.

 

The West should also offer support, he added: “Under three conditions: a peaceful transition, free and fair elections and press — and freedom of speech.” In that sense, he said, the West should actively encourage Islamist parties to participate in the political process in Egypt, with the precondition that they are willing to abide by the law and agree to eschew violence and allow themselves to be voted out of office if that is the will of voters.

“Why is that so important?” Polenz said. “Because it is the only way that Islamist parties, who have rightfully criticized the authoritarian regime, can be integrated into the process.”

If the Islamist parties were closed out of the process, he believes, then their criticism in the future would be directed at the democratic system. “Ultimately,” the CDU politician says, looking ahead to the post-Mubarak era, “the maladministration cannot be eliminated overnight.”


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