For many months, Egypt’s top diplomats have been trying to persuade Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to invite Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Berlin.
And for many months, Merkel refused. She insisted that Egypt should first hold parliamentary elections. Elections were expected to take place in March and April 2015—not that they would have been fair or free, given Sisi’s unremitting clampdown on the opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as on media and civil society organizations.
However, Merkel didn’t stick to her condition. In March, Sisi postponed the elections, but on May 4, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier held talks with Sisi in Cairo to prepare the president’s visit to Germany. On June 3, Sisi arrives in Berlin.
This is a foreign policy mistake. Other European Union countries may follow Merkel’s lead, thus giving Sisi a veneer of legitimacy, even though he ousted his predecessor, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, in what amounted to a military coup. Since then, Sisi has run roughshod over human rights, while Morsi has been sentenced to death.
Despite Egypt’s human rights crisis, which Human Rights Watch calls “the most serious in the country’s modern history,” Sisi, president since 2014, is being accorded special treatment by Germany.
When he arrives in Berlin, Sisi will be welcomed with military honors by German President Joachim Gauck. A former East German human rights activist, Gauck is no stranger when it comes to criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s human rights violations. Indeed, Gauck has refused to visit Putin or invite him to Berlin because of Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and his invasion of eastern Ukraine.
German companies will take heart from the Egyptian president’s visit. They will surely see the trip as a political green light for doing business in Egypt.
Yet interests and politics aside, welcoming Sisi makes a mockery of values. Europeans need to defend values more than ever to lend support to the younger generation in North Africa and the Middle East.
Sisi’s visit sends a depressing message to the many thousands of Egyptians who fought for freedom during the heady days of the Arab Spring in 2011—and to the many who are now imprisoned, who are being tortured, who are being sexually assaulted, and for whom justice has been hijacked by Sisi.
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The message these Egyptians will take from Sisi’s welcome in Berlin is that stability takes priority over the transition to democracy, however messy such transitions often are. Indeed, it’s as if nothing has been learned from the pre–Arab Spring era, when Western countries—with very few exceptions—put stability before democracy and human rights.
Steffen Seibert, the German government spokesman, said Merkel would meet Sisi because “Egypt is an immensely important player in the Arab world.” The country could help contribute to peace in the region, he added.
Sisi isn’t getting it all his way. Norbert Lammert, the speaker of the German parliament and a senior member of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, canceled plans to meet Sisi.
In a statement issued by his office, Lammert laid it on the line: “Despite expectations from Egypt to schedule a date for the long-awaited parliamentary elections, what we are witnessing in recent months is systematic persecution of opposition groups, mass arrests, convictions to lengthy terms and an incredible number of death sentences, which include former parliament speaker [Saad] al-Katatni.”
Lammert’s office, challenging Merkel’s justification for having Sisi in Berlin, added: “Given this situation, which contributes neither to domestic peace nor to the democratization of the country, Lammert sees for the time being no ground for a meeting with President el-Sisi.”
The statement might have added that the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is affiliated with the CDU and supports democracy building, was forced to close its offices in Cairo in June 2013, as were other foundations.
Yet neither Berlin nor, for that matter, Washington seems to worry unduly about the built-in insecurity and instability of Sisi’s repressive rule. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed Sisi’s election. And Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates pushed the United States to normalize relations with Sisi’s government, despite the military coup and the rampant abuses of human rights.
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In December 2014, the U.S. Congress introduced new language in the law governing military aid to Egypt, as Human Rights Watch reported. The change allows U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who welcomed Sisi’s election, to waive the democracy certification previously required for such aid if doing so is in the interest of U.S. national security.
Back in Germany, Berlin’s red-carpet treatment for Sisi may well come back to haunt Gauck and Merkel. At stake is defending decency and courage and those struggling for democracy.