BERLIN — The uneasy relationship between European economic interests and foreign policy ideals was on full display Wednesday in the German capital.
That day, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had refused for months to accept a visit from Egypt’s leader, welcomed President Abdel Fattah El Sisi to Berlin, and German industrial giant Siemens signed an 8 billion euro deal ($9 billion) with Egypt to supply gas and wind power plants to boost Egypt’s electricity generation by 50 percent.
Standing by Sisi at a joint news conference in Berlin, Merkel said that Germany and Egypt have many common interests but maintain different views on issues such as the death sentence and other human rights matters. “I think that if one wants to be partners and solve complex issues, we have to be able talk about these things,” she said.
The press conference ended in chaos after a woman from the media began yelling that Sisi was a “murderer” and members of the Egyptian state media responded with shouts of “Egypt lives!”
Before the press conference deteriorated into a shouting match, Sisi defended his regime’s use of capital punishment, arguing it was a matter for the Egyptian judiciary. “Let the process run its course,” he said. ”We, too, love democracy and freedoms in Egypt. But we live in a very difficult time.”
‘Human rights crisis’
Despite Merkel’s criticism and the ideological sparring, the the trip has been a big success for Sisi, whose regime “presides over the gravest human rights crisis Egypt in decades,” according to a joint statement by Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations. She previously stated that she would not host him in Berlin until Egypt held fair parliamentary elections. Such elections have not yet taken place.
Merkel changed her mind and invited Sisi to Berlin because “Egypt is an immensely important player in the Arab world” and could contribute to peace in the region, the chancellor’s spokesman told Deutsche Welle when the visit was announced in May.
Sisi’s visit has been very controversial for German society. Berlin is “forfeiting one of its most powerful diplomatic instruments in exchange for a lucrative business deal,” read a staff op-ed by Raniah Salloum published Wednesday by German news outlet Der Spiegel.
Germany’s Parliament Speaker Norbert Lammert took a stand against the visit, saying there were no grounds for a meeting with Sisi because Sisi contributes neither to domestic peace nor to the democratization of his country.
“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 prison terms and an incredible number of death sentences,” read a statement released by Lammert.
The deal between Siemens and Egypt, which will give a much-needed boost to one of Germany’s biggest companies, was not mentioned by Merkel as a factor in the decision to invite Sisi to Berlin. But for the German government, economic interests take precedence over Egyptian violations of human rights, according to Olaf Boehnke, the head of the Berlin office of the European Council of Foreign Relations, an international think tank. Boehnke added that there were other reasons motivating Merkel to change her policy toward Egypt.
“After El Sisi took over power in Egypt, they became a very strong partner of Israel —which is also a very important issue for Germany — containing the situation in Gaza,” Boehnke told Al Jazeera. “I think [Germany] wants to push Egypt to its more traditional role as one the stakeholders in the Middle East and one of the partners.”
Throughout Wednesday, the first day of Sisi’s two-day visit, there were protests near the Egyptian Embassy in Berlin, including one organized by a group called Tahrir-Berlin.
“Most Western countries don’t really care about democracy and about democratic processes in the Arab world,” said one of the organizers of the Tahrir-Berlin demonstration, who requested that her name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety in Egypt.
“What they are more concerned with is their own interest,” she added. “And for them, they see Sisi as a strong man who does what they ask him to do.”