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Cairo toes hard line as Egypt's foreign minister visits Berlin

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is visiting Berlin this week. He can count the first meeting of Egypt's parliament in three years as a political success. But human rights in his country are suffering.

When Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry arrives for meetings in Berlin on Monday, he will be able to point to an important political step that his country has just taken: On Sunday, after almost three years, the Egyptian parliament reconvened for the first time in three years.

The previous parliament was dissolved in 2012, after courts dismissed the sitting body. After that, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and his predecessor, Interim President Adly Mansour, governed without parliamentary oversight. But from now on, the government will be faced with a chamber of deputies. 596 parliamentarians now hold seats.

Political normalization?

Government adherents see the reestablishment of parliament as an important symbol, and a step towards political normalization. The Egyptian daily newspaper "Al-Ahram" writes that the new parliament is a strong institution. "It can call for a vote of no confidence for the government, and it can restructure government. It can fire the head of government, as well as declaring states of emergency, or even war. It can also adjust the budget, and even withdraw confidence in the president, although only in certain situations."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry

Nevertheless, the parliament also exhibits weaknesses, continues "Al-Ahram"; namely, its questionable democratic legitimacy in light of low voter participation in parliamentary elections. Only 28 percent of those eligible to vote actually did so. There were a number of reasons for this says "Al-Ahram"; for instance, the political division, even polarization, of society and the lack of political presence in the public sphere.

Societal polarization

The political polarization of Egypt can no doubt be traced back to the hard line that the Sissi government has taken domestically. On the one hand, the government faces huge domestic challenges. It sees itself confronted by jihadist rebel groups, especially on the Sinai Peninsula, that seek to destabilize the country by carrying out attacks throughout Egypt.

The most recent example of this type of terror was a knife attack on foreign tourists at the beach resort of Hurghada. Such attacks are an attempt to spread fear among vacationers in hopes of further crippling an already weakened tourism sector. Tourism is one of the country's most important sources of income.

On the other hand, the government is going after peaceful opposition groups with extreme ruthlessness. The government justifies its actions by pointing to a security bill that it passed last June. According to the law, persons accused of seeking to overthrow the government, or change the constitution, can be sentenced to between 10 and 25 years in prison. For those found guilty of supporting or leading terrorist organizations the law dictates prison sentences of up to 25 years or even the death penalty.

However, even those who use social media to spread ideas that "encourage terrorism" can count on prison sentences of up to five years. This particular part of the law allows the government to take action against unwanted political opponents. In their 2014/2015 annual report, the human rights organization Amnesty International estimated that Egypt currently has some 40,000 political prisoners in its jails.

Amnesty also claims that freedom of press is not protected in Egypt. Numerous journalists have been jailed there, while still others have been intimidated. At the end of 2014, the liberal Arabic internet website "Al-Araby Al-Jadeed" was shut down.

The first session of Egypt's re-convened parliament on Sunday

Preparing for the first session of Egypt's re-convened parliament on on Sunday

More repressive than Mubarak

"Egypt," explained Middle East expert Stephan Roll in a recent interview, "is more repressive today than it was under its former leader Hosni Mubarak. We are likely witnessing the darkest chapter in the country's recent history. The opposition is being completely shut out of the political process. That is problematic."

It is problematic because when such a large swath of the political spectrum is shut out of the discourse, many people become radicalized. Thus, a fertile ground for terrorism is prepared. Beyond that, President Sissi and his government have yet to come up with satisfactory solutions for Egypt's pressing social and economic problems.

That all makes political cooperation with Egypt problematic as well. Still, economic interests for doing business may sway opinions for some governments. "Germany is no exception … The German government has been very clear that they see Egypt as an important partner. And that they will support it financially."

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