By Mohamed Selim
Whoever scheduled the President of Egypt’s visit to Berlin from 2 June to 4 June must be a political genius. That person/entity must be so perceptive that in order for the President’s visit to occur without any undesirable media frenzy, and thus achieve all its goals, it should take place in the first week of June.
Germany, in the past 10 days, was the centre of Europe and grabbed the attention of the world. Numerous European and global far-reaching events were hosted and took place in Berlin and other German cities, from the Group of Seven (G7) annual meeting hosted at the idyllic Bavarian Alps of Schloss Elmau to the final match of the European Football Champions League. Other various political meetings hosted in Berlin concerning the Eurozone and its debt-stricken member, Greece, while its anticipated failure in meeting the 30 June deadline of repayment is causing unwarranted ripples to the global financial economy.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had her hands full in attending to the aforementioned foreign responsibilities, including her focus on the domestic debates, among which is whether Germany’s government will follow in Ireland’s suit and propose a referendum on the marriage of homosexuals. Merkel, at this point of her career, can’t ignore the pulse of the German people who will be summoned to the polls in two years. She wants the public to give her a fourth mandate to govern. The German current affairs were very well poised to give President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi a smooth ride in Europe’s most important capital. His fortunes were moreover consolidated with the breakout of the FIFA scandals, which has gripped the attention of the German media and the public sphere for the past three weeks.
And as planned, the visit of the Arab World’s most populous state’s president didn’t really grab the attention of the German media beforehand, with the exception of a few op-eds in the national newspapers. Yet, attention started to mount as the protesters living in Germany and Europe descended on Berlin to voice their anger against the incumbent regime and the president’s heavy-handed tactics against dissidents.
The majority of those protesters were Egyptians, Turks and Arabs living in Europe who exercised their right to protest against the current situation in Egypt. This is legitimate, customary and justified. Other world leaders, including the Chinese and Russian Presidents, are faced by similar and fiercer protests whenever they set foot in any Western or European country. They raise flags, chant slogans and attempt to cause disruption to the visiting dignitary, while the locals are attending to their daily businesses. After a few hours, it becomes history and the media will consider it as proof of their own country’s vibrant freedom of speech.
Al-Sisi’s visit was controlled by the German and Egyptian authorities to achieve its desired results. And his itinerary didn’t receive any hurdles, save the President of the German Bundestag’s cancellation of his meeting with Al-Sisi. Other than that, the President’s schedule was packed with meeting all the major players in Berlin, including politicians, parliamentarians and businessmen. The current regime camarilla and its sycophants, nonetheless, thought they would do the current regime a service when they pack charter-jets with antediluvian Egyptian actors and actresses to wage protests in favour for Al-Sisi and against Egypt haters, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood. It was absurdity shrouded in hypocrisy.
Protesting against one’s own governments is one of the basic rights of every citizen in any established democracy. Germany has been living proof of that in the past few days during the G7 meeting in Bavaria’s district of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Thousands of protesters from all over Europe have descended on this pristine area to protest against capitalism, globalisation and the western policies regarding a plethora of subjects, among which, climate change. The US President and other leaders were ridiculed, booed and the protesters were successful in blocking one of the major roads towards the venue of the meetings at Schloss Elmau.
Yet, none of the western leaders, nor their political parties, thought of being accompanied by their countries rank-and-file artists to wage counter-protests and name-call the organisers as enemies of their states. The Egyptian regime nevertheless, it seems, wanted to teach the world its playbook on how to deal with such protests.
Firstly, urge your country’s oligarchs to reach out to the country’s artists and invite them to accompany the president on his visit. All expenses will be attended to by the private companies and the regime’s paladins. Secondly, ask your media outlets to wage a verbal attack against the country which the president is visiting and the expected protests that will take place there (some Egyptian pundits and moderators were claiming the German media is funded by the Brotherhood, and that the German government is pro- -ousted president Mohamed Morsi).
Thirdly, during the visit, call on the regime’s beneficiaries to organise a public relations campaign to refurbish the achievements of the president and his credentials (the daily respected newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a one-page advertorial paid for by Siemens, Orascom Development, Misr Bank-Europe and the tourism company, FTI, under the title, ‘Egypt’s way in the Future’, and the main article is ‘Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a president with a vision’ accompanied by his photo and biography). Fourthly, ask the president when he is in the foreign capital, to get out of his fortified accommodation and go out, not to meet the compatriots who are protesting against his policies, but those who are chanting for his life and raising his pictures. If you follow such steps, you will prove to your host that you’re popular among your people, and thus deserve, legitimacy and a free-hand against the perfidious dissidents.
Alas, this is exactly what the current Egyptian regime has orchestrated, to the amazement of the German press and public. The people of Berlin who can’t forget the disasters of a leader with a charismatic authority, have witnessed during the President of Egypt’s visit, how a personality cult is being composed. Not only in Egypt, where the majority of people are poor and afraid of the future, but also abroad among the expatriates who, supposedly, are well-off and better educated. It was farcical throughout the three-days to witness how the President’s photos were held by Egyptians chanting against others whom raised the ousted president’s photos and raised their hands with the infamous four-fingers, i.e. the locally banned, Rabaa symbol.
The president of Egypt has succeeded in his visit in securing contracts from Germany’s top companies, including Siemens, to invest in Egypt and ripen the power grid of the country. He met Chancellor Merkel, her deputy and head of the Socialist Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, and the President of the Federal Republic, Joachim Gauck. The latter, who is known for his honest and un-minced words, didn’t release any statements on Egypt’s democratic turbulences, and was reticent before and after meeting Al-Sisi. Merkel, for her part, released a statement after her press conference with Al-Sisi, entitled ‘High Interest on Stability’, which sums up her government’s policy towards Egypt.
Al-Sisi, however, committed two grave mistakes in this press conference. He failed to acknowledge that the world has changed. He answered one of the questions regarding the domestic situation by saying that the German media, because of the geographic distance between the two countries, is not well informed about the real situation on the ground. This was an octogenarian’s view; one who is unaware of the information technology advances in bridging continents, not a 60-year-old president who came to power after his people mobilised through social media to oust his two predecessors. Secondly, his answers to the questions were prevarications to its subject matter. He kept talking as though it were one of the Egyptian Army’s Department of Morale Affairs’ events, where he is expected to utter his remarks without any interruptions and/or follow-up queries.
The president is a soft-spoken, misty-eyed and emotionally intelligent speaker with an indefatigable paterfamilias approach when his audience is the Egyptian public. This approach won’t succeed in his foreign trips, where the questions will be tougher and the audience won’t be pliant to the regime’s tactics of intimidation. The president ought to know that all politics are local. In the current internet-driven age, all the Egyptian domestic politics are within minutes translated to all major languages while shared, tweeted and re-tweeted in no time. Geography doesn’t play a role anymore in the existing hyper-connected world. Yet, local politics still do. And before the president travels again, and this time to the White House, he needs to start by putting his own house in order and maintain the constitutional prerogatives. Anything else, including prevaricating, mobilisation and sophistry is, and will be, absurd.
Mohamed Selim Khalil is a media scholar with a research emphasis on Political Communication in the Arab World, University of Osnabrück, Germany. Twitter @moselim