January 12, 2022

Germany’s Problematic Billion Euro Weapons Deals with Egypt

For years, Egypt has been among the main destinations of German arms exports. However, a reassessment of this policy is long overdue as the exports to Cairo are sending dangerous political signals.

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a military ceremony at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, France, October 24, 2017.
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Shortly after Christmas, the German Press Agency (dpa) revealed that the outgoing German government—a coalition between the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD)—had approved the export of armaments worth €5 billion during its last days in office. This brought the overall volume of authorizations for arms exports in 2021 to €9 billion, the highest amount ever approved in one year. By far the largest part of these were exports to Egypt.

The Green Party has repeatedly condemned large-scale arms exports to Cairo during its time in opposition. In December, after the party had entered a coalition with the SPD and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), it again criticized the latest approvals. The spokesperson for the Green Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Action Robert Habeck, for example, emphasized that he had nothing to do with the authorizations, and another Green, Katja Keul, Minister of State in the Foreign Office, publicly doubted whether the new cabinet would have approved the arms sales.

This has fueled expectations that Berlin will chart a new course when it comes to the export of armaments to countries like Egypt. This is long overdue, not only because the country is involved in regional conflicts and has a horrific human rights record, but particularly because arms deliveries send fatal political signals.

Rising Exports to Egypt

According to the annual arms export reports, the German government authorized sales to Cairo worth a total of only €160 million between 2010 and 2015, but Egypt subsequently became one of the main recipients of German armaments. Approved export agreements amounted to €399 million in 2016, which made Egypt the fourth largest customer for German arms worldwide, €708 million in 2017 (ranked fourth again), €14 million in 2018 (ranked 39th), €802 million in 2019 (ranked third), and €764 million in 2020 (ranked second). Submarines, battle ships, and patrol boats have been the main export goods, as well as missiles and rockets, torpedoes, fire control instruments, sighting devices, and air and missile defense systems.

In a reply to a parliamentary inquiry from the Left party, the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action disclosed that the (previous) government had approved sales to Egypt worth an astonishing €4.34 billion in 2021. To put this into perspective: In 2014, it authorized a total of sales worth €3.97 billion to all customers worldwide; previously, the largest amount ever approved to any single country in a single year was €1.78 billon (to Hungary in 2019); and in six out of the last 11 years not a single country received armaments valued at more than €1 billion.

Moreover, most deals were greenlighted during the outgoing government’s last few weeks in office. For example, the then Minister of Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier (CDU) informed the President of the Bundestag Bärbel Bas (SPD) about the approval of the export of three frigates by Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems, as well as of 16 air defense systems by Diehl Defence, in a letter dated December 7—the new cabinet was sworn in on December 8.

Cairo’s Regional Conflicts

Egypt’s involvement in the wars in Libya and Yemen is one of the most frequently cited reasons for criticism of arms deals with the country, as it, in fact, contradicts the German government’s own political principles for the export of armaments. Those principles rule out deliveries to countries entangled in or at risk of becoming entangled in violent conflicts. The former government defended the exports by arguing that Egypt was not directly involved in these wars, even though it has been part of the Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in the conflict in Yemen—albeit with a small number of fighter jets and naval vessels.

In Libya, Egypt has supported the Libyan National Army (LNA) with airstrikes. In mid-2020, President Abdelfattah al-Sisi publicly considered a military intervention in Libya, and the Egyptian parliament officially approved such a step. Moreover, Cairo repeatedly threatened to use military force in its conflict with Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and it is involved in maritime disputes over gas reservoirs in the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily with Turkey. Thus, Egypt is involved in a number of conflicts, and German arms deliveries may ultimately not stabilize but destabilize Europe’s southern neighborhood.

Human Rights Violations

The second major point of criticism, which is frequently raised, is Egypt’s horrific human rights record. Egypt has become increasingly authoritarian since the military coup in 2013, and individual freedoms and liberties are harshly repressed. The German political principles for the export of armaments include the stipulation that Berlin must place particular emphasis on the human rights situation in recipient countries when considering arms exports.

Members of the former government argued that the armaments delivered to Cairo were not to be used for internal repression. This is indeed true for most exports, including the most recent deals, as Germany does not export light weapons to Egypt (any more). Yet, the Egyptian military has committed numerous human rights violations in its war-like fight against Islamists on the Sinai Peninsula, and its military strength is continuously showcased and utilized to intimidate political rivals and protestors, hence at least facilitating the regime’s attempt to silence its critics.

Fatal Political Signal

Thus, the former German government’s justifications for the exports are shaky and can easily be contested. Even more problematic, however, is the fact that the authorization of large-scale arms sales to Egypt has sent a dangerous political signal. By continuously approving exports, Berlin has effectively signaled that the Egyptian regime can continue its repressive policies without having to fear major consequences. If the mild criticism that is voiced every now and then is not substantiated with concrete measures, the Egyptian regime will only feel reassured of Germany’s support, no matter how severe human rights violations are.

Arms deliveries also send a message to opposition movements in Egypt, who have to conclude that they cannot trust the German government’s promise to support their attempts at democratizing the country, but that Berlin has instead decided to back (and arm) the Egyptian regime. Activists of course do not expect that Germany will bring democracy from the outside. But what they do ask for is that external actors do not make their work even more difficult. And this is exactly what the unconditional backing of al-Sisi does: It creates a situation in which the regime is convinced that it can do whatever it wants.

Readjustment Necessary

According to the coalition agreement, the new German government intends to draft a law regulating the export of armaments, and the Greens and the SPD reaffirmed this initiative after the latest authorizations were made public. Until now, the non-binding political principles have served as guidelines, but they have left the government with wide room for maneuver, as the exports to Egypt have illustrated. Unambiguous legislation could set clearer rules and in doing so restrict exports.

Placing an embargo on all deliveries to Egypt, however, would be an even stronger signal. It would show that the German government is indeed charting a new course, and it would deliver a powerful message to both the Egyptian regime as well as all Egyptians who are fighting for liberties and democracy. It is also a good time for such a move, as the United States under President Joe Biden is much more critical of the Egyptian regime than it had been under former President Donald Trump, and is equally reassessing its policies.

For example, Washington, for the first time ever, has tied at least a small portion of its military aid to human rights compliance. In reaction, the Egyptian regime at first harshly criticized this measure, but soon after began to actively try to improve its image abroad, showing that it cares about and reacts to such measures. The same could be expected in case of a German arms embargo. While Cairo may react angrily in the short-term, it would be unlikely to significantly disrupt bilateral relations—but it would serve German interests in the long-run.

Christian Achrainer is a Berlin-based independent analyst and consultant, focusing on the Arab world as well as on German and European foreign policy.

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