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West faces balancing act on Egypt

For years, Western nations have considered Egypt's president a close ally. In view of the ongoing mass protests, the West has to find the right balance between demonstrating support and diplomatic reservation.

tanks in cairo

EU leaders have condemned the violence in Egypt

The leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain on Thursday jointly expressed their "utmost concern" at the worsening situation in Egypt.

"The Egyptian people must be able to exercise freely their right to peaceful assembly, and enjoy the full protection of the security forces," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero in a joint statement released by the German government in Berlin.

Attacks against journalists were "completely unacceptable," they said.

"We condemn all those who use or encourage violence, which will only aggravate the political crisis in Egypt," the leaders said. "Only a quick and orderly transition to a broad-based government will make it possible to overcome the challenges Egypt is now facing. This process must start now."

German tact

Merkel has been strikingly reserved in commenting on the issue up until now. After all, Germany is extremely aware of its historic responsibility toward Israel and has exerted great tact in the matter.

Mubarak and Merkel

Merkel welcomed Mubarak to Berlin last year

During her visit to Israel earlier this week, Merkel explicitly thanked President Hosni Mubarak for his contribution to the Middle East peace process. Egypt under Mubarak had done its utmost to support a compromise between Israel and the interests of the Palestinians, she said. Her words sounded, though, like a swan song for a politician threatened to be overrun by the dynamics of history.

According to Elmar Brok, a German member of the European parliament (EP), support for the opposition in Egypt has been a long time coming.

"Many leading politicians utterly misjudged the situation and believed too much in the lasting stability of the regimes in North Africa," said Brok, foreign policy spokesman for the EP's conservative faction.

Lack of credibility

Other German politicians, such as Rolf Mützenich from the Social Democrats (SPD), said the West anyway had insufficient credibility in the region. During the Bush years, for example, when the West was advocating democracy in the region, it did not accept the free elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006.

Egyptian protester waves the Egyptian national flag

Protestors in Egypt are demanding change

"This is a lasting problem which we have to dispel in the future," said Mützenich, the foreign policy spokesman for the SPD's parliamentary group.

Europe had also discredited itself by sealing off its borders to refugees from the region in a trade-off with specific nations, said the Green party European member of parliament, Barbara Lochbihler.

"When countries such as Libya, Morocco and Algeria promise to close their borders to the EU and not let any more refugees through that Europe doesn't want, then these countries are not criticized," Lochbihler said.

But hardly any western experts have dared to predict how the situation in Egypt and the entire region will develop in the near future. Middle East expert Mützenich said in an interview with DW-WORLD.DE that it is very likely that Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood would emerge stronger from democratic elections.

Nevertheless, he said the mass protests were not an Islamic uprising, but rather "a question of social modernization."

The European Union's role

wolfgang ischinger

Ischinger said the conflict in Egypt will be on the agenda in Munich this weekend

The European Union could play a significant role in supporting the democratic movement in Arab countries, according to the former German ambassador to Washington, Wolfgang Ischinger.

"In the last two-and-a-half decades, here in Europe we have been able to gather more experience on the switch from dictatorship to democracy than any other continent," Ischinger told journalists in Berlin earlier this week.

The head of the Munich Security Conference taking place this weekend said the situation in Egypt would be one of the top issues at the conference. But Ischinger also cautioned against unwavering support by the West for Mubarak's opponents.

"Who should take over?" Ischinger said in an interview with German news agency dpa, if Mubarak were to be toppled. "Not every dictator chased away in the course of history was replaced by a democratic regime. We Europeans have one calling, and that must be clear, that in doubt we will always support democratic forces."

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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