Neither value-driven nor feminist

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip (image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture-alliance)

Germany's policy on Egypt is based on economic interests and a fear the country may collapse. As a result it contributes to stabilising Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's brutal regime

Essay by Ilyas Saliba

After receiving 97 percent of the votes in the Egyptian presidential elections of 2014 and 2018, Sisi was favoured by "only" 89 percent of voters in December 2023. 

As the opposition candidates were by turns not admitted to the race due to alleged procedural errors, discredited by smear campaigns or prevented from running by security-force intimidation, there can be no question here of free competition or fair elections. 

In the run-up to the polls, Egyptian law enforcement also put pressure on critical media and journalists. Just as in the 2018 elections, there were reports of votes being purchased with money or food. And yet, Sisi is now licensed to govern Egypt until 2030 under a constitution that was amended specifically for this purpose in 2019. 

So why all the drama surrounding his legitimacy? On the one hand, Sisi is trying to create the illusion of democratic legitimation of his rule, while on the other hand the presidential elections are vital for ensuring continued support from Europe and the USA.

The presidential elections held in December 2023 were originally scheduled for the spring of 2024. However, hikes in government spending, rising sovereign debt and the enormous inflation rate made a further devaluation of the Egyptian pound at the beginning of 2024 appear almost unavoidable.

Every currency devaluation only exacerbates the rampant poverty in the country, sowing growing resentment among the population. Sisi's generals are well aware of this. The Egyptian regime therefore decided to move up the presidential elections to precede a further devaluation.

A brutal military dictatorship

Beyond the facade of democratic elections, the Sisi regime is a brutal military dictatorship. Ever since the then defence minister led a successful military coup in the summer of 2013, the military has continuously expanded its power, managing to prevent other political or economic players from gaining a foothold. The number of political offices occupied by members of the military has increased substantially under Sisi's leadership. 

Parliament and the political parties represented therein have been marginalised and robbed of their political influence. The parliament is therefore scarcely able to exercise its constitutional control functions over the government and the executive bodies.  

Within just a few years of taking power, Sisi also managed to bring the judiciary almost completely under the political sway of his military regime. By expanding the military’s judicial authority and removing independent judges from office, the president has ensured a sympathetic judiciary that acts as an enforcer of his military regime against members of the opposition. 

The penal authorities and judiciary silence critical voices through lengthy trials, prison sentences, and bans on certain activities and on leaving the country. Even the security services of the Ministry of the Interior, which under Mubarak became a power centre in their own right, have hardly any pull these days. 

In Sisi's Egypt, no political organisations or institutions remain that would be able to challenge the dominance of military might. Ever since 2013, political power has been concentrated more and more in the presidential palace and the military.

President and presidential candidate: Abdul Fattah al-Sisi
Egyptian legitimacy theatrics: following 97 percent in the presidential elections in 2014 and 2018, Sisi received "only" 89 percent of the vote in the presidential elections in December 2023 (image: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance)

On the brink of economic collapse

Today Egypt is on the brink of economic collapse. The state is heavily indebted and government spending continues to spiral. Inflation is also skyrocketing, reaching 38 percent in September 2023.  The prices of food and other necessities have in particular risen excessively, making the situation for Egyptians increasingly hopeless. 

Poverty is also on the rise: According to the United Nations, the number of Egyptians living on less than 3.65 US dollars a day has gone up from under 20 per cent to over 24 percent in recent years. Youth unemployment – which was already extremely high before the Arab Spring in 2011 – has now reached over 30 percent

Further aggravating the situation is mismanagement by Sisi and his generals, who have swelled the national debt burden by financing expensive prestige projects such as the new administrative capital in the desert, a huge step-up in armaments investment and a planned high-speed rail network.  

Military market dominance

After Sisi seized power, the Egyptian military soon became one of the largest arms importers in the region. Every year, the regime spends several billion euros on new fighter planes and warships. 

Since defence spending is a state secret, there is no parliamentary or public control over these expenditures. And they continue despite all attempts by the European Parliament to implement an arms embargo due to the human rights situation in Egypt. In 2021 alone, the German government approved arms exports to Egypt to the tune of four billion euros.

Since the coup in 2013, the military's economic footprint in several sectors of the economy has grown to a remarkable extent. The resulting market dominance by the military of the construction and infrastructure sectors as well as in food production, communications and commodities trading is causing the Egyptian economy's productivity to stagnate while hindering fair competition and hence innovation. 

Nevertheless, the dominant role played by the Egyptian military in the economy serves a key political purpose for Sisi, who is able to secure the loyalty of his generals through lucrative posts and shareholdings in companies controlled by the military. This tactic only encourages corruption, which still flourishes even at the highest levels.

Activists protest for the release of political prisoners in Egypt
Ten years after Sisi's military coup, there are currently between 60,000 and 65,000 political prisoners in Egypt, according to human rights organisations (image: Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA/picture-alliance)

European fears ignore the reality of Egypt

European governments, including the current German government (as well as its predecessors) are helping to stabilise and legitimise the Sisi regime with their economic and arms export policies and with security cooperation in the fight against terrorism and migration. The economic interests of German companies in the energy, infrastructure and armaments sectors with their substantial contracts in Egypt are given higher priority here than a feminist and value-based orientation for German policy on Egypt.

The German government's policy is guided in addition by the nagging fear of a looming collapse of the Egyptian state and a consequent increase in the migration of Egyptians into Europe. As was already the case before the Arab Spring in 2011, German institutions and companies are working closely with the Egyptian leaders and their repressive apparatus to restrict migration across the Mediterranean. 

However, Sisi and his generals cannot really prevent migration to Europe. In fact, many of the Egyptians who risk making the crossing are only doing so in the first place to escape the ongoing repression and economic misery into which the Sisi regime has plunged the country. 

By stabilising Sisi's government, the German traffic-light coalition is therefore not only undermining its own aspirations toward a feminist and value-driven foreign policy, but paradoxically even contributing to an intensification of the main causes of flight such as political persecution, police violence, corruption and poverty. And it is doing so at the expense of a human rights-oriented policy on Egypt.  

Sisi profits from the war in Gaza

Sisi has taken advantage of the war between Israel and Hamas following the massacres of 7 October to make himself indispensable to Germany and Europe through his role as mediator. 

Given the extensive blockade of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli government and the invasion of Gaza by Israeli soldiers, the delivery of humanitarian aid to the nearly two million displaced Palestinians is currently possible almost exclusively via the border crossing with Egypt. 

At the same time, the Sisi regime has itself been involved in cutting off the Gaza Strip in recent years with its own isolation policy – incidentally, in close coordination with the Israeli government.

While Sisi has stressed that Egypt will not be taking in any refugees from the Gaza Strip for security reasons, the Egyptian regime is bolstering its state finances by coordinating humanitarian aid. And as violence escalates in Gaza, the European Union is working to provide Egypt with faster and more extensive support in its efforts. 

Welcome sign for Sisi in Germany, Berlin 2022
"With its incoherent Egypt policy, Germany's government is helping to stabilise one of the most brutal regimes in the region and thus directly working against the protection of human rights," writes Ilyas Saliba. The picture shows a welcome sign for Sisi during his visit to Germany in 2022 (image: Michael Kuenne/ZUMA/picture alliance)

Obsession with curbing migration

The failure of the German government to pursue a coherent Egypt policy can be attributed in part to how foreign policy in Berlin is often dominated by domestic political perspectives and debates. The migration debate driven by right-wing populist parties and German politicians' resulting obsession with curbing or even putting a complete stop to so-called irregular migration across the Mediterranean is a prime example. 

Domestic political discourse and economic interests are thus prime motivations for security cooperation and arms exports, even though these measures undermine the declared foreign policy goal of promoting human rights and democracy in the region.

State guarantees for major investments by German companies in Egypt, known as Hermes guarantees, should also be scrutinised in light of the desolate state of Egyptian finances and the role played by the military in particular in such major projects. 

The recently announced termination of support by the German Foreign Office for an Egyptian human rights organisation, justified on the grounds that the chairwoman had called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, only undermines German and European efforts to promote human rights in the region.

Lorries carrying humanitarian aid waiting at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza
"Sisi has taken advantage of the war between Israel and Hamas following the massacres of 7 October to make himself indispensable to Germany and Europe through his role as mediator," writes Iliyas Saliba. The picture shows a queue of lorries carrying humanitarian aid waiting to enter Gaza at the Rafah border crossing (image: Reuters)

Time to rethink German policy on Egypt

With its incoherent Egypt policy, Germany's government is helping to stabilise one of the most brutal regimes in the region and thus directly working against the protection of human rights. 

It is therefore high time to rethink the assumptions and priorities of German policy on Egypt and to agree on an interdepartmental do-no-harm approach that focuses on human rights and the promotion of civil society and no longer contributes to the stabilisation of the Sisi regime. 

This will require a recalibration of German policy, involving at least three steps.

First, the German government must recognise that the Sisi regime is part of the problem and not part of the solution. Egyptian stakeholders and institutions responsible for repression, mismanagement and corruption must no longer be the primary partners for German foreign, security, development and economic policy. 

Cooperation with such parties should therefore be analysed critically and a reorientation set in motion across all departments of government towards cooperation with Egyptian civil society and the private sector rather than state-run enterprises.

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Establish clear parameters

Second, the German government must distance itself from the fallacy that the Egyptian regime is a guarantor of stability and peace in the region. The destabilising effect of the Sisi regime, for example through the military's role in the failed transition processes in Sudan and Algeria, military support for General Haftar in Libya, and the sealing off of the Gaza Strip, must finally be recognised in the Berlin ministries. 

Even beyond the domestic repression exercised by Sisi, his regionally destabilising and anti-democratic activities are reason enough to stop the extensive arms exports and security cooperation with Egypt.

Third, in terms of development and economic cooperation, the focus of large-scale military and government-sponsored projects should be directed towards improving the livelihoods of Egyptians. 

Microcredit programmes funded through the KfW Development Bank, particularly for people in rural areas, and a focus on food security would be possible approaches here. Within the framework of international financial and debt policy, the German government should utilise the debt restructuring negotiations to work with international partners to push for a reduction in the role of the military in the Egyptian economy and to insist on compliance with human rights and democratic standards. 

This will also require stricter conditions to be set in debt relief negotiations and in offers of financial support for Egypt from the EU and international institutions.

Ilyas Saliba

© Heinrich Boell Stiftung 2024

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor