Economic Relations with Egypt: Prosperity or Morality?

Status: 06/23/2022 11:41 a.m

Egypt is playing an increasingly important role for Germany as a trading partner. But human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the situation in the country. Can change succeed through investments?

By Anna Osius, ARD Studio Cairo

“Mobility has always been important to us Egyptians,” says a promotional video. And that’s why the champagne corks must have popped in Munich a few weeks ago. “The new railway system will connect people with each other.”

A completely new railway system, as advertised in this promotional video – is to be built by the German company Siemens. The largest order in the company’s history, they say, with a total volume of around eight billion euros. Siemens is doing excellent business in Egypt – and is obviously proud of it.

The company says: “We must have an interest in working with countries that rely on green and clean technologies.”

Important for the German economy

Is it about clean technology – or making money? According to the managing director of the German-Arab Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Jan Noether, Egypt plays a major role for the German economy as a whole.

“Egypt is becoming increasingly important for Germany,” said Noether. “Germany enjoys an excellent reputation in Egypt. We have 250 German companies in the country. We have a total trade volume of around 5.5 billion euros a year.”

violations of human rights

But despite all the euphoria about good trade relations, human rights organizations keep emphasizing that Germany should not forget who is being traded with there. Egypt is governed in an authoritarian manner, and regular violations of human rights are the order of the day, says Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch.

“The human rights situation in Egypt is currently worse than it has been in decades,” Stork said. “Any form of critical expression puts you at risk of jail. Torture is widespread, especially of political prisoners, but also of ordinary people who end up in the police force.”

Largest buyer of German armaments

Human Rights Watch urges that Egypt’s political orientation should receive more attention in Germany. “Of course, countries like Germany have economic ties to Egypt,” says Stork. “But especially when it comes to arms exports, you shouldn’t do that without thinking about human rights. That would be a shame. And we very much hope that Germany and other EU countries will change their attitude.”

So far, business has been flourishing: last year, Egypt was by far the largest buyer of German armaments. Exports worth 4.34 billion euros went there. And in the previous year, too, Egypt was in second place in the German armaments export rankings with an export volume of more than 760 million euros.

Baerbock criticizes the government

The outgoing federal government made headlines at the end of last year because the grand coalition, as almost the last official act, approved two arms exports to Egypt. Three frigates and 16 air defense systems were allowed to be delivered from Germany to the Nile.

The new federal government has taken on the subject more. In December, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock commented on the forthcoming sentencing of a well-known activist and a blogger in Egypt, which was unusually sharp for diplomatic custom.

A few weeks later, Baerbock visited Cairo – and made it clear that future arms deliveries depended on the human rights situation. “Security and stability can only exist in the long term where everyone has prospects – and the opportunity to play a peaceful part in politics and society,” said Baerbock. “Even if that is sometimes a process that has to be courageous and that costs a lot.”

In December, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was in Cairo.

Image: picture alliance/dpa

National dialogue announced

It is unclear whether this demand was heard in Egypt. The fact is that a so-called national dialogue was recently announced in Cairo – now all parties in Egypt are to be brought together, apparently including members of the opposition who were recently in prison.

Observers see this as the government’s reaction to the looming economic crisis and concerns about possible resentment among the population. Is the national dialogue actually about a lasting change in the human rights issue?

Human Rights Watch’s Stork doubts that: “There have been prison releases. But at the same time, new people are being arrested again, almost every week, and again only because of a tweet or a comment on Facebook that is viewed critically.”

Europe doesn’t want refugees

In the end, it’s always about your own interests in Germany and Europe, criticize human rights activists. And, according to observers, it is also the fact that the inhabitants of the most populous country in North Africa – that is, the more than 100 million Egyptians – see a future in their homeland and do not make their way to Europe as refugees.

And that’s exactly why economic relations are important, they say. With their local investments, German companies could help to offer Egyptians prospects, according to Chamber of Commerce boss Jan Noether:

We don’t have to feel bad about doing business with Egypt. Egypt is a large country with 105 million citizens. A large part of the Egyptian population lives around the poverty line – it is important to create jobs in Egypt and then to stimulate consumption with the jobs. And the funds must be used for educational tools that help the country as a whole.

development through investments

Siemens Mobility also sees the latest major project in this context: “If people can travel safely, network and commute to work, this promotes social development and creates jobs and prosperity.”

Social development through investments – but does this also result in political changes? It’s the classic question, criticize human rights activists like Human Rights Watch: prosperity or morality?

“Human rights are never a priority”

“Of course we understand that human rights are not the only issue that Germany has on its agenda,” says Stork. “It’s one of many important things. But human rights are never a priority, they’re always at the bottom of the list.”

Stork emphasizes: “Only when all other interests – economic, trade interests, security issues – only when all of that has been considered – then we might say a word about human rights violations. Countries like Germany would have to be much stronger there. And I call on the federal government and the Bundestag to do that.”

Gas deal with the EU

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was recently a guest in Cairo. It was about a gas deal between Israel, Egypt and the EU. In the future, Europe wants to receive gas from Egypt.

In the presence of a contentedly smiling Egyptian President, von der Leyen praised Egypt as a stable, reliable partner in the region. She did not mention a word about critical issues such as the observance of human rights.

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