By Jonathan Moremi
When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived for the press conference in the Berlin chancellery last week, they were late. “We had a little delay,” apologised the Chancellor, “we had a problem with the elevator. We went up and down several times but finally, with the help of the second elevator, in the end managed to be here.” President Al-Sisi wore a broad grin on his face.
The symbolism of this was not lost on the political observer. For decades, from President Nasser to Sadat and Mubarak, the interim government under SCAF, President Morsi and now Al-Sisi, the relationship between Egypt and Germany has been constantly going up and down, and a chance to find the second elevator to finally reach a mutual position has so far not emerged.
After Mubarak was forced to step down, in August 2011 Germany and Egypt signed the ‘Berlin declaration‘agreeing on a partnership in the transitional process that was to help Egypt reap the harvest of the young revolution. But only four months later, in December 2011, in a surprise move, Egypt police, with the consent of then-minister of international cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga, raided the Cairo offices of 10 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that were working in Egypt, monitoring elections and educating parties and voters in the country. Initially, no reason was given for the raids, in which a total of 43 NGO staffers, including 19 Americans and two Germans, were held at gunpoint while watching their offices get ransacked. Computers, files, private laptops and even cash was taken without a warrant shown or an explanation given. Like the others, the office of the German Konrad-Adenauer Foundation (KAS) in Cairo was closed. The bureau chief Andreas Jacobs was held and interrogated for hours before being temporarily set free.
The attack on the German political foundation came as a total surprise to Berlin. The KAS had been working in Egypt for over 30 years with the full understanding and permission of the Egyptian government. Jacobs had always received his visa in declaration of what he was doing and what the work of the KAS in Egypt was about. The harsh accusations that the KAS – as allegedly the other foreign NGOs under attack – had not filed registration papers with the authorities and received illegal funding from outside was strictly rejected by the German government. In an unprecedented unity, in February 2012 the members of the German parliament, across the whole of the political spectrum, unanimously accepted a resolution demanding from Egypt to immediately stop the attacks against the KAS and other NGOs. The Egyptian government was also urged to hand over all documents and computers that had been confiscated in the raid and had still not been returned.
The relations between Germany and Egypt, who had only just agreed on cooperation in the Berlin declaration, slumped. Nothing that had been agreed upon in August 2011 still seemed to be valid from the Egyptian side, and despite the German protests, official charges were laid against the staff of KAS in February 2012.
The diplomatic row that erupted over this, both from Germany and the US, reached huge proportions and finally resulted in a dubious deal. In return for a substantial payment of as much as $5m in bail, on 1 March 2012, a US military plane was allowed to ferry the foreign NGO staffers out of Egypt. Both Andreas Jacobs and his German staff, after enduring harrowing months fearing jail, managed to reach the safety of Germany.
But the damage was done. And the question remained, why Egypt started such heavy handed attacks against the foreign NGOs that had successfully been partners to Egypt for decades under Mubarak‘s rule. The role of Fayza Aboul Naga, who had been a Mubarak loyalist and was apparently convinced that the Americans had been behind the toppling of her president, was suspected to lie in an act of revenge. The German KAS, observers speculated, had merely been drawn into this fight by mistake, a collateral damage so to speak. And indeed, the President of KAS, Hans-Gert Pöttering, explained in an interview that the minister of international cooperation in February 2012 told him personally that Germany and the KAS were “friends of Egypt“. Seeing that the KAS office was shut down, documents and computers stolen and the staff members placed under a travel ban, Pöttering was not amused. “I told her that the friendship was currently on hold. One does not drag friends to court and threaten them with years of imprisonment.”
Morsi tricked Merkel
In June 2012 Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt. Half a year later, despite the ongoing NGO trial, efforts were made to restore the battered relationship between Germany and Egypt. President Morsi was under heavy attacks for his increasing power grab beyond legal rights and badly in need of an international appearance of high profile to score points back home on national television. A visit to Berlin, meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to be just the thing and so Morsi’s aides offered to find a solution to the work of the German political foundations in Egypt.
Berlin was delighted that finally things seemed to progress and a diplomatic note was exchanged on 29 January 2013, to the effect that the German political foundation KAS was officially incorporated into the German-Egyptian cultural agreement. The legal status and safety of the foundation was thus finally settled between both countries. The following day, 30 January 2013, president Morsi stood next to Chancellor Merkel in the fierce wind blowing in front of the German chancellery. All seemed well, and Merkel, herself a member of the board of directors of KAS, was jubilant. “This is a good signal for the NGOs as well“, she rejoiced publicly after meeting with Morsi.
But the elevator was quickly to go down again. Shortly after the successful entry into the realm of international diplomacy and having received the television coverage badly needed back home, president Morsi and his government officials had other things on their mind. Before Berlin knew what had happened, the agreement was declared null and void by Egypt with officials stating that there must have been a misunderstanding. An incorporation of the KAS, whose staff was still under charges in the trial, was not part of the cultural agreement and impossible. Berlin, and especially Chancellor Merkel, had been tricked. The pretended agreeing to solve the KAS dilemma had only had the intention to pave the way for a good climate during president Morsi‘s visit to Berlin. As soon as that had been achieved, Egypt lost interest in the matter. In Berlin, both members of parliament and government officials fumed.
Another half a year later, in June 2013, an Egyptian court sentenced all 43 defendants in the NGO trial to lengthy jail terms. Andreas Jacobs of the KAS received a five-year prison sentence, his German female staffer was sentenced to two years. In addition, the court ordered the permanent closure of the KAS office in Egypt.
Once more the relationship between Germany and Egypt hit rock bottom. KAS President Pöttering spoke of “a terrible blow against Egypt‘s civil society and the rule of law”, the then-German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said the actions of the Egyptian judiciary were “alarming”, and voiced his outrage over the “harsh verdict against the staff of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation”. The chairman of the foreign committee of the German parliament pointed out that the verdict was also politically a disastrous signal. “It transports the message that Egypt rejects help in building a civil society. However the country is in bad need of financial aid. Against the background of this verdict such decisions must be questioned.”
The new president tightens the grip on NGOs
In Egypt meanwhile things once again reached boiling point with the public dissatisfaction of the Morsi rule growing and resulting in huge protests in the street. In July 2013 president Morsi was deposed by the army and an interim president and government installed under the then-head of SCAF Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. From then on presidential elections, that were to bring Al-Sisi himself to power in May 2014, were all the Egyptian side cared about. In the case of the now sentenced KAS staff, the foundation filed a legal appeal and continued to hope for a political solution. But nothing moved.
In November 2013, after Germany had elected a new parliament, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) formed a coalition government. Both had not forgotten the issue of the KAS and wrote in their coalition agreement: “The verdict against the staff of Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation and the sentences to many years in jail must not be allowed to remain. The German-Egyptian declaration of January 2013 must be valid. The German NGOs must be allowed to work freely in Egypt.”
But in Cairo, no one seemed to be willing to stick to a diplomatic note that had been issued by the former, now much-hated Islamist president. The matter was ignored and the German attempts to reach a solution showed no results. Instead the year 2014 produced troubling developments for NGOs in Egypt, as the interim government – and subsequently the government of the elected President Al-Sisi – embarked on drafts to a new NGO law that would severely restrict the work of the organisations, and control both their actions and their finances. The members of civil society in Egypt as well as international observers and governments voiced their concern over this troubling development that was in stark contrast to the roadmap sketched out repeatedly by Al-Sisi, promising freedom and democracy to the Egyptian people. And if this trend was not worrying enough, in November 2014 Al-Sisi appointed none else but Fayza Aboul Naga as his security adviser – the woman who was behind the raids on the NGO offices in 2011 and the subsequent charges against the organisations. Berlin realised it had to step up its efforts if a satisfactory solution was to be secured.
In January 2015, German Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid Christoph Strässer travelled to Egypt to discuss the security situation in the country, human trafficking, the situation of refugees and the new protest law and its implication for freedom of speech. Strässer also met several times with representatives of local NGOs and discussed at length with government officials the necessity of a joint German-Egyptian declaration that would ensure the work for the German political foundations. When he left Cairo nothing was settled but hope was expressed that an agreement could finally be achieved.
Four months later, in the beginning of May, Germany‘s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier travelled to Cairo in preparation for Al-Sisi’s upcoming visit to Berlin in June. Members of his diplomatic entourage described the trip to Cairo as ‘difficult’.
Steinmeier, who at the time the NGOs were sentenced in 2013 in the notorious trial was the leader of the Social Democrats in the German parliament, had been outraged over the happenings. “The verdict of the Egyptian judiciary against members of the Konrad-Adenauer foundation and the ordered closure of the foundation‘s office in Cairo are totally unacceptable and deeply disturbing,” Steinmeier said after the sentencing. The verdict was a “serious burden on the bilateral relations and not tolerable”, and Steinmeier demanded an immediate review of the “scandalous decision” so that the political foundations and the other NGOs in Egypt could continue their work unhindered and without fear of retribution.
Two years later, Steinmeier, now Foreign Minister of Germany, on his Cairo trip tried to pave the way to finally find a solution, but faced obstacles. His Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, spontaneously cancelled a dinner invitation with him, an affront not often seen on the diplomatic stage. The next day, the unity of both Germany’s and Egypt’s Foreign Ministers seemed to extend only to the common interest of security in the region and fighting terrorism. Regarding the ongoing problems of the German political foundations, it became clear that Germany was still not served with a solution. Nevertheless, Steinmeier tried to be optimistic.
“We are very interested of course in a civil discourse and the work of the German foundations,” Steinmeier remarked at the press conference. “And I am very grateful to President Al-Sisi for the offer, not only to look for a solution in the matter but also to find it.” He expressed confidence after the talks he had had that the matter would finally be resolved by the time the Egyptian president would visit Berlin four weeks later.
Al-Sisi in Berlin
A month later, however, nothing had materialised. When President Al-Sisi visited Chancellor Merkel in Berlin last week, it was Merkel at the press conference who touched on the subject and revealed that still no agreement had been found.
“We talked about the work of our political foundations,” Merkel told the journalists, “and the work of the Konrad Adenauer foundation for us is of vital importance.” She nodded to the Egyptian president standing next to her. “We have agreed that we will continue to seek a solution for the work of our political foundations.” This time she looked at Al-Sisi and her face was expressing a stern expectation in the matter.
Al-Sisi took his time to reply to this. After a lengthy monologue on the developments in Egypt in the last years and the problem of the death penalties that the Chancellor had also mentioned, Al-Sisi finally came to the point and explained that the problem had resulted from the ‘special situation’ of the last years in Egypt. “You should understand that we do not seek to restrict the NGOs or the political foundations or that we try to curb their activity,” the president told the media – despite the drafting of a new NGO law that had revealed exactly that intent. “But now, if we have the possibility to find special rules within the law, we will immediately do that to allow the political foundations to continue their work.”
That must be seriously questioned. KAS spokesperson Mathias Barner told Daily News Egypt in Berlin that the Egyptian government had produced a draft for an additional protocol to the German-Egyptian cultural agreement that explicitly excluded a solution for the foundation. “And that of course is totally unacceptable not only for us, but for the other German political foundations as well. Why is the KAS left out of the protocol? We do not know. What we need is for the verdicts against our staff to be lifted so that they can return to Egypt. It is not imaginable for us to continue our work there unless those verdicts are corrected.”
In addition, the NGO verdict has more than a legal side to it. The female staffer who had been sentenced to two years in jail but had been able to leave Egypt with Jacobs to avoid arrest is a married to an Egyptian. She is now living with her two daughters in Germany while her husband is in Cairo. She can‘t go back. The family has been torn apart.
A Berlin governmental official well informed on the negotiations with Egypt in the matter of the political foundations, who spoke to Daily News Egypt on the condition of anonymity as he is not allowed to officially comment on the case, confirmed that indeed the Egyptians had produced a draft for an additional protocol to the cultural agreement – and that it explicitly excludes the KAS. A definite sign that a solution is not sought.
But to him that is not the only problem that disputes what President Al-Sisi assured in the press conference.
“The problem not only lies with leaving out the KAS. There are in addition serious differences in the definition of what political foundations are and what work they are allowed to do. The foundations according to the draft protocol are to be supervised, there are restrictions to what partners they are allowed to cooperate with, projects must either receive permits or are deemed illegal and the scope of the work is restricted. All that of course is impossible. The political aspect to political foundations is totally disregarded which makes the draft wholly invalid.”
The president is playing tricks
If Al-Sisi is so willing to find a solution to the KAS problem, it must be asked why there is such limited movement, despite the optimism Foreign Minister Steinmeier expressed weeks ago in Cairo that the matter would be settled by the time Al-Sisi came to Berlin. KAS spokesperson Barner confirmed to Daily News Egypt that to this day the confiscated documents and computers comprising data of three decades of work have not been returned to the foundation or to the German government despite the urgent plea of the German parliament in 2012 to hand over the property of the foundation. Questions must be raised if the willingness that Al-Sisi expressed in the press conference to “immediately” do something to finally resolve the issue truly exists. If, as Steinmeier put it in Cairo, Al-Sisi ever did look for a solution in the matter, his promise to find it has yet to be fulfilled.
The Berlin official is more than sceptical that it will happen. “From what we see the Egyptians drafted a proposal of a protocol for a simple reason only – to create a good climate for the visit of the Egyptian president in Berlin. But in reality, the content of that draft shows it clearly, there is no true interest to reach a solution on the matter.”
Two years after president Morsi tried just that and succeeded, the new president has apparently copied the trick. The visit to Berlin went well and produced the television coverage to support his power back home. In addition, a huge deal in the energy sector was signed to the value of €8bn with the comfort of Berlin’s Hermes credit insurance to act as a guarantor. In return, Berlin got nothing in the NGO matter, despite Egypt pretending ahead of the visit that a solution was possible.
Unintentionally connecting to the picture of the elevator going up and down in the chancellery in Berlin, the government official remarked dryly: “Basically it seems, the Chancellor was taken for a ride.”
The broad grin on the face of the Egyptian president at the opening of the press conference seems to have been there for a reason.
Jonathan Moremi is a freelance journalist and writer with 36 years experience reporting as a political correspondent both from Germany and the Middle East. Since the outbreak of the revolution in 2011 he concentrates his reporting mainly on Egypt. He has studied law and has worked extensively for international human rights organisations. You can follow him on twitter at @jonamorem