At the beginning of June, current Egyptian President and former General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Berlin at the invitation of the Merkel government. This meeting was part of an ongoing effort to strengthen the relationship between Egypt and Germany by finalizing a deal between the German company Siemens and the city of Cairo. El-Sisi is a questionable leader, however, who took power through a controversial election, has ordered countless executions, and reigns without a parliament. Many see Berlin’s invitation to him as a gesture of international recognition—and consider it a betrayal of liberal forces in Egypt and a return to Western countries’ old patterns of preferring stability over rule of law.
The €8 billion deal at the center of a renewed German-Egyptian relationship is this: Siemens will build high-efficiency, natural-gas-fired power plants and wind power installations in Egypt, a project that will increase Egypt’s power generation capacity by more than 50 percent. Due to the expense of the project and the risk undertaken to complete it, Siemens has requested state export credit insurance. This insurance protects German companies from losses due to missed payments by their foreign business partners. If the foreign buyer—which is, in this case, the Egyptian state—is not able to pay, the German government would step in. This state export credit insurance is only payable, however, if the Egyptian state defaults due to bankruptcy or renewed political turmoil.
This energy deal is not in actuality a deal between Siemens and Cairo, but rather between Siemens and the Egyptian military. Egypt’s military establishment plays a major role in the Egyptian economy as it is involved with several industries, including tourism, real estate, manufacturing, and energy. It is a self-contained organization that lacks external control and is exempt from paying taxes on its business dealings. As a former general, el-Sisi found this partnership with Siemens an exceptional opportunity to widen his power in Egypt: he could create more jobs and gain Egyptians’ favor, and Siemens could gain a chance to sell wind energy outside Europe, where demand is low.
The Siemens-Cairo opportunity should have meant responsible cooperation with Egypt, including strict political conditions; free and fair parliamentary elections, for example, have not yet occurred in the North African nation.
The West should also insist on real and traceable reforms. However, in extending an invitation to el-Sisi, Germany rejected the opportunity to change a long-standing paradigm on how to deal with authoritarian Arab regimes.
The former presidents of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia were once close allies of Europe and guaranteed stability in the region. Focusing on the economy’s health was generally common among Arab dictators until the unemployment rate rose to a point that people had nothing to lose, and uprisings, such as the one in Tunisia, occurred. Each of these leaders fell quickly after their populations rose against them, and their downfall shook the foundation of a potentially sincere relationship between North Africa and Europe. At the same time, the West—and in particular, Germany—had the chance for a fresh start when these leaders were ousted.
El-Sisi has learned from the mistakes of previous autocratic leaders. The political disposition in Egypt is certainly against him since almost half of the population voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that is now suffering from censorship and mass executions, three years ago. Still, el-Sisi wanted to present himself as a representative of all Egyptians—an ambition that has not gone as planned. We saw this at a press conference announcing the deal between Germany and Egypt, when a young woman accused el-Sisi of being a murderer and nationalist—and showed a different point of view that was not welcome at the event. Fagr Eladly, 22, an Egyptian-German student, political activist, and journalist, seized the opportunity to interrupt the conference and make headlines all over the world. Her disruption was important, symbolizing the oppressed voices el-Sisi has left behind in Egypt.
With a disappointing move that legitimizes el-Sisi’s Egyptian leadership, Germany could lose credibility and be accused of hypocrisy both in the Arab world and worldwide. This is an unnecessary risk: Egypt is more dependent on Germany than the other way around. Although it receives money from the Gulf States, Egypt is close to national bankruptcy, and it desperately needs this economic partnership with Germany, a country that is leading the production of high quality machinery, in order to create jobs.
In addition to the financial risk Germany is assuming with this project, it is also a political risk to cooperate with a domestically unstable country. Germany should rethink its foreign policy toward the Arab world and should aim toward a more normative policy. Instead, it is following a path that has been used before: forming an opportunistic relationship between regimes that hold their populations hostage and the Western countries that benefit.
Germany is at a point where it has the capacity, politically and economically, to break from that path and help establish a new relationship with the Arab world. The deal with Egypt, unfortunately, shows that everything is back to business as usual.