One Mickey Mouse-eared Sisi won’t stop the show
Protests in Berlin during Sisi’s visit are overshadowed by pragmatic Egypt-Germany relationship

German police, equipped to handle a demonstration, were stationed just a short distance from the residence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, where she and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met on Tuesday. Barricades sectioned off a large square that could accommodate hundreds of protesters and there were a dozen police vehicles and at least 20 police officers scattered around the area.

Preparations for the demonstration were the central topic of discussion for a group of Berlin-based Egyptians opposed to the regime in the days preceding the Tuesday meeting. Some spoke of a giant Sisi balloon that was being prepared for the occasion. However, this failed to generate much enthusiasm and could not mask the obvious fear in that conversation. What could the demonstration accomplish anyway?

The balloon portrayed Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears, wearing a military uniform and sitting atop a tank with a large cannon. The inflatable effigy, a nod to the photoshopped image that earned student Amr Nohan three years in prison in 2015, was accompanied by 15 protesters from across Egypt’s political spectrum, from liberals and leftists, to Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Yellow banners bearing a hand showing four fingers, the Rabea symbol, could be seen, while some chanted the slogan, “We haven’t forgotten Tahrir, you sons of bitches.” The force of the protesters’ chants could be felt in the square. However, the effect of the protest much beyond these immediate was muted. There was no media presence and the demonstration did not attract the interest of any passersby.

The demonstration was organized to coincide with a meeting between Merkel and Sisi on the the latter’s third official visit to Germany. The Egyptian president kicked off his four-day visit in Berlin on Sunday with the Germany’s Partnership with Africa Initiative for the G20, meeting with a number of German officials.

Analysts and German sources who spoke to Mada Masr paint a relationship between Egypt and Germany that has largely become one of established pragmatism. While Germany is focused on the need for a stable Egypt to quell North African migration into its borders, Egypt continues to seek out allies that overlook its troubling human rights record and provide large scale foreign investments. Consequently, the two states have reached a convenient compromise.This fact is clear to the demonstrators, most of whom likely realize the protest is futile. This demonstration comes mostly from a place of despair, not a place of hope.

Germany’s interests

On Monday, Sisi met with German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, chairperson of the Munich Security Conference. Their conversation revolved around the topic of migration, with Ischinger praising Egyptian efforts to curb “illegal immigration,” according to a statement issued by Sisi’s presidential spokesperson. The German ambassador added that “there were no Egyptians among the large number of refugees accepted by Germany since 2015.”

The issue of migration was a common thread that ran through most of Sisi’s meetings in Berlin — it has topped the agendas of most bilateral meetings with Egypt ever since it became one of the key issues in German domestic politics.

During separate discussions with Mada Masr, several German members of parliament also emphasized that Egypt’s status as “an island of stability amongst a sea of unrest” is also essential, pointing to the escalating wars in several states throughout the region in recent years. A stable Egypt means fewer irregular migrants disembarking from the shores of North Africa, which, in the eyes of the European Union, means a lower security risk and political support from an increasingly anti-immigrant populist base.

Cooperation between Egypt and Germany on the management of irregular migration will likely translate to more German business in Egypt. One contract signed between Siemens and Egypt in 2015 was worth 8 billion euros.

Absent from all of these discussions is the subject of human rights, reflecting that Germany has adopted a more lenient stance than in recent years. For example, in 2014, the German government halted a large shipment of weapons destined for Egypt. Moreover, in July of this year, a German source told Mada Masr that, during talks in Berlin that month, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry fielded many questions related to the human rights situation in Egypt, the fate of political prisoners, and the state of civil society.

However, much has changed since then. Between October 2017 and February 2018, the German government approved 285 million euros worth of arms deals with Egypt. The German source who previously spoke to Mada Masr noted “a shift in Germany’s strict position toward more arms deals with Cairo.”

The only point on which Germany maintained its hard line stance, according to German sources who spoke to Mada Masr previously, was the sale of audio surveillance equipment to Cairo and the provision of cyber training to Egyptian security forces. This hardline was reflected in the security agreement reached between the German and Egyptian ministries of interior in February 2017. One German analyst, who specializes in Middle Eastern Affairs and who was briefed on the talks during the visit, tells Mada Masr that the German Foreign Ministry used its veto powers to object to one of the conventions of the agreement about cyber training. However, there are no guarantees that this will not change in the future.

“It’s a good signal from the German side that they canceled a planned training on online surveillance. Amnesty demands that the Germans-Egyptian security cooperation does not empower the Egyptian participants to violate human rights,” Amnesty International Middle East researcher Ilyas Saliba tells Mada Masr. “In this regard surveillance technology and trainings are particular risky as they can easily be misused.”

Egypt’s interests

In its diplomatic dealings with Germany, it seems like the Egyptian regime is trying to kill two birds with one stone. The state has been able to win financial concessions to deal with immigration issues, while simultaneously overcoming pressures about Egypt’s human rights violations, which were previously a sore spot for the regime.

During a meeting in Austria in September, EU leaders discussed a “historic agreement” whereby Egypt would enhance its security presence along its shores and resettle refugees it intercepts in the Mediterranean in Egyptian territory. In exchange, the EU would give Egypt “substantial investments” and “other financial incentives,” in addition to special diplomatic treatment, including “high-level visits by European leaders to Egypt.”

This aligns with what Sisi announced a day before his current trip to Berlin while hosting a delegation from the Bundestag in Cairo. During the meeting, Sisi referred to the “massive efforts exerted by Egypt to combat and curb this problem and control its maritime and land borders in light of the instability faced by several countries surrounding Egypt,” and was quick to point out that there has not been a single case of “illegal migration” from Egypt since 2016. Nor did he hesitate to mention “the burdens carried by Egypt to achieve this feat in hosting millions of refugees from different nationalities, where they are provided a decent standard of living without being isolated in camps or shelters and receive equal treatment with Egyptians for various services.”

According to the German analyst specializing in the Middle East, this reference to Egypt’s “burdens” is not without meaning. “Sisi has a strong negotiating position now because of the refugee crisis, so he can win monetary concessions,” the analyst says. “Some of these concessions come in the form of development projects, but more importantly, Germany is offering debt relief for Egypt worth hundreds of millions of euros. Because of this position, Germany’s discussion of the human rights situation in Egypt is disappearing.”

During yesterday’s meeting with Merkel, Sisi referred to Egyptian efforts to combat illegal immigration by preventing boats carrying migrants from heading to Europe since September 2016, after the Rashid boat incident, which killed hundreds of migrants trying to get to Europe. The EU-Egypt agreement on the horizon is speculated to have Egypt hosting millions of refugees within its borders. All of these efforts require money as much as a blind eye be turned to the country’s human rights record.

Stakes for political opponents

It was amid of all of these different interests that 15 Egyptian activists gathered in Berlin. Others did not attend, fearing security forces would persecute them upon their return to Egypt. One of the activists at the demonstration wore a pink wig to avoid being identified.

Egyptians living in Berlin tell Mada Masr about fears predicated on the Egyptian embassy’s reputation for following members of the political opposition and sending reports about them back to Cairo. Egyptians circulate these stories like urban legends. Some speak of Ismail Alexandrani, who was arrested at the Hurghada Airport in November 2015 upon returning from Berlin because of security reports prepared by the embassy. There are also stories of Egyptians who were warned by German domestic intelligence that the embassy was monitoring their movements.

What is on the record, however, comes from five Egyptian diplomatic sources who spoke with Mada Masr in May 2017, part of a larger arc in which 40 diplomats have been reassigned to lesser positions in the last two years under pressure from Egypt’s security apparatuses. These moves toward exclusion bespeak a story of an interplay of power, with one executive arm, namely the Foreign Ministry, falling under the helm of another executive arm, Egypt’s various security apparatuses. The sources particularly pointed to Badr Abdel Aty, Egypt’s ambassador in Berlin, saying that he had been working outside the Foreign Ministry to enhance bilateral relations between the two countries, including security and political institutions, before he also was caught in the crosshairs of the security apparatus.

No one knows exactly which security service these stories refer to and there is no concrete evidence to support them, but their circulation alone is enough to terrify. The fear instilled by state surveillance knows no borders and it can follow you wherever you go. The Egyptian state is particularly adept at it. “No one is safe, even here,” according to one activist who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, fearing the validity of these stories.

On top of the fear of reprisal, there is a sense of futility. The activist Mada Masr spoke to accused the German government of being complicit with the Egyptian regime. In a world where everyone pursues their own interests, there is no room for others. “Most people find such demonstrations to be useless,” she said. “It becomes a risk, but nothing changes in the end. The risk used to be worth it, but now it’s just stupid.” Those who demonstrated know that they will never return to Egypt. The balloon attended the demonstration with just a few other people. In all likelihood, the puffed up, polychloroprene president, like them, will remain here in exile with no chance of ever returning.

Mohammad Salem 

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