Quite unprecedented scenes took place at a German press conference on Wednesday 3 June when Angela Merkel and her foreign visitor, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appeared in front of the media.
Already a first glance at the various media representatives indicated something odd: In addition to the normal contingent of local and foreign journalist there was a large contingent of 80 ‘patriotic’ Egyptian journalists all clearly there not to ask critical questions but to support ‘their’ president. They applauded at various points during al-Sisi’s short speech and one reporter first thanked his president before posing a critical question at Angela Merkel. Critical questions were hard to pose in any case with strict regulations that allowed two questions each for German and Egyptian media representatives respectively. After this manufactured exchange a young woman of Egyptian origin who somehow had managed to gain access to the press conference as a journalist wanted to ask a question of her own and as this was denied she shouted in perfect German ‘you are a murderer’ and subsequently ‘you are a Nazi, you are a Fascist’. The woman, a medical student in the German town of Mainz, was immediately surrounded by German security personnel who had a job at their hands to protect her from the Egyptian media representatives who threatened her in no uncertain terms and shouted ‘long live Egypt’.
Outside the German chancellery was another strong contingent of Egyptian supporters of al-Sisi. A so-called ‘people’s delegation’ of 150 jubilant supporters had been flown in especially from Cairo and were supplemented by a large group of al-Sisi supporters living in Germany and recruited via a social media campaign.
The Egyptian opposition was also present and needed the protection of German policy to pass the agitated pro-government supporters. The last time a performance of uncritical adulation for a foreign head of state had been seen in such a way was in 1967 when the Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi visited what was then West-Berlin. Ironically, he also had a contingent of 150 stringent supporters with him who were called Jubelperser at the time (Iranians hired to cheer). They were not only cheering but also had orders to suppress any critical chants and threaten counter-protesters with their fists, which led to the name Prügelperser (hitting Iranian supporters) by some in the media. That visit ended with the killing of student Benno Ohnesorg by German police that became a rallying point for the subsequent student revolution and other left-wing movements.
But that was then and this is now, and the question remains, why did Angela Merkel agree to welcome al-Sisi in this way, why did she allow this performance of a smiling statesmen who so blatantly ignores the rule of law, governs without parliament and has broken all promises for democratic change?
He stood at the same spot where a bit more than two years ago another Egyptian President was welcomed, Mohammed Morsi. He has meanwhile been sentenced to death, as have many of Morsi’s supporters in a quite astonishing bout of mass-death-sentences – verdicts Merkel actually strongly disagrees with. That the farce of al-Sisi the benevolent statesman became exposed for all to see we have to thank that brave young woman for. Her intervention not only transformed a simple press conference into a hotbed of pro-al-Sisi chants by supposedly critical media, but made it necessary to lead al-Sisi away to in essence protect him from some of his own people.
Thus one could see his visit ultimately as a disgrace al-Sisi brought upon himself with his encourage of Jubelägyptern, his jubilant followers. But that is only part of the truth. Because there is another reason why al-Sisi came to Germany and was welcomed by the German chancellor: The signing of the biggest single contract in the history of Siemens, with a volume of eight billion euros in order to build gas and wind power stations. Alone three of the most potent gas power stations globally are part of the deal as are up to twelve wind parks. The contracts were signed that same Wednesday in Berlin between al-Sisi and Siemens boss Joe Kaeser. It’s the economy, stupid! was once a winning slogan in an American election. For those who once occupied Tahir Square in the hope of a better future that included political freedoms and rights, this is a devastating message. What Egypt may need more than economic contracts might be another revolution.