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Middle East

Westerwelle pushes for new start in Egypt

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has called for a return to democracy during a trip to Cairo, but did not directly condemn the coup. Berlin's influence in Egypt remains limited.

Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle faced a difficult balancing act during his trip to Cairo: striking a tone that addresses both Egypt's new transitional government and the ousted Muslim Brotherhood.

Westerwelle was the first Western foreign minister to travel to Egypt following the July 3 coup, when the military deposed the Brotherhood's President Mohammed Morsi. Berlin wants to promote a return to democracy and at the same time prevent escalating tensions between the Islamists and the secularists. Thousands of Islamists protested in the Egyptian capital during Westerwelle's visit.

Despite his efforts, analysts say the foreign minister lacks significant means to exert pressure on the transitional leaders. "We can only give advice," Westerwelle admitted himself, after meeting his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy.

According to Maha Azzam, an Egypt expert at the British think tank Chatham House, Westerwelle's trip was still worthwhile. "[His visit] made it clear to the transitional government and the generals that the outside world is watching this sensitive situation, and is not giving up its demand for democratization," Azzam told DW. This attention, he argues, serves to exert pressure on the leadership in Cairo.

Ouster not designated as coup

Immediately after the coup in early July, Westerwelle said the events were "a serious setback for democracy in Egypt," adding that the country must rapidly find its way back to constitutional order. But he stopped short of condemning the military coup, and was reluctant to address the topic in Cairo on Wednesday (31.07.2013).

Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi sit in the shadow of a tent as they wait for Friday prayer, where protesters have installed their camp and held their daily rally, at Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 19, 2013. Thousands of protesters are holding rallies across Egypt to demand the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, is mobilizing followers to march in Cairo and elsewhere Friday for a protest they’re dubbing Breaking the Coup.” (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The Muslim Brotherhood are calling for Morsi's reinstatement

"These are the first few minutes of an historic hour," Westerwelle said diplomatically. At issue is a new beginning for the country, but whether Berlin will continue to provide the hundreds of millions of euros in assistance to support this new start was not made clear. The 2013 funding, promised for civil society, cultural and scientific projects, has already been paid. Everything else must be assessed in the light of future developments.

The dilemma for the German government is that it is simultaneously trying to promote democracy, stability and security. In the current situation in Egypt, these values apparently contradict each other. On the one hand, the Egyptian military represents a guarantee against all-out civil war between the Islamic and the non-religious camps. On the other hand, the military deposed the freely-elected Morsi.

The German Foreign Ministry is fully aware of this difficult situation, said Christian Achrainer, an Egypt specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "That explains why all the statements that we hear from government have been very wishy-washy. There is no clear partisanship," he said.

Berlin's position criticized in Cairo

At the start of his visit, Westerwelle resisted the urge to call for Morsi's release once again, a stance that had previously met with a lack of understanding from the country's new leadership and non-religious groups alike.

Angela Merkel and Mohammed Morsi Foto: Axel Schmidt/dapd

Morsi visited Merkel in Berlin in January

"There are many voices in Egypt criticizing the German government's position," said Stephan Roll of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Germany was the first country, ahead of the US and other EU members, to call for Morsi's release. Despite the criticism, Roll thinks Berlin should stick with its convictions.

In the 12 months in which Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power, Germany and Egypt had a businesslike relationship, with Chancellor Angela Merkel welcoming the former president to Berlin in January.

"This cooperation with a freely-elected government spoke more for the German government than the EU and the United States' current dealings with a leadership that came to power through a coup," said Azzam.

Bringing the Muslim Brotherhood into dialogue

Westerwelle is now also reaching out to the former governing party, echoing a similar move by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton a few days earlier. In their view, a dialogue between Islamists and the transitional government is essential to calming the volatile situation, and Westerwelle once again tried to encourage the Egyptians to begin such a dialogue.

The Muslim Brotherhood would likely welcome German or European mediation, according to Achrainer. "It is, however, easy to see why, since the Muslim Brotherhood is in such a bad situation," he said. Any agent that does not set itself against the Muslim Brotherhood would be welcomed - but Germany or the EU are not expected to be particularly successful mediators. Germany has relatively little influence on the events in Egypt, said Roll. The situation in Egypt remains unclear, and the question of who is in charge remains complex. "The situation cannot really be influenced from the outside, and this also applies to the German government," said Roll.

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