Does Germany have a new Middle East policy? | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 11.04.2015

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Does Germany have a new Middle East policy?

Violent conflicts are spreading throughout the Middle East. Germany is working with Egypt, supporting Saudi Arabia and delivering weapons to the peshmerga - but the government opposition in Berlin is critical.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has been in office for almost a year. Soon he's due to visit Germany. In March, German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel extended an invitation on behalf of Chancellor Angela Merkel. That marked a departure from the government's earlier position that parliamentary elections in Egypt were a precondition for an official state visit by the president.

The Egyptian parliament was dissolved in 2012 by the constitutional court, and it's not yet clear when the next election will take place. In Berlin, questions are being raised about whether this shift represents a new direction in relations between Germany and Egypt.

A visit by CDU/CSU parliamentary group chairman Volker Kauder to Cairo before Easter seemed to confirm this. Kauder met with el-Sissi for talks, which he said were mainly about economic interests. "The Egyptian government hopes to attract more German investment," he told DW, adding that politicians have a duty to support such efforts.

Criticism leveled at Kauder

Kauder's Middle East trip met with criticism in Berlin. The Left Party said both his and Gabriel's visit to Egypt were in poor taste. Left Party MP Christine Buchholz said the German government was prioritizing business interests over human rights.

Omid Nouripour

Nouripour, foreign policy expert for the Greens, was born in Tehran

Omid Nouripour, foreign policy expert for the Greens, has demanded an explanation for the shift from Chancellor Merkel. If she is willing to waive a commitment to parliamentary elections as a prerequisite for el-Sissi's state visit, then there is no pressure on the Egyptian president to hold democratic elections, Nouripour told DW. He added that he has nothing against a direct dialog with el-Sissi; it just depends on what Germany has to say to him.

Germany should put conditions on its cooperation with Cairo, said Nouripour. "These conditions should include assurances that a multi-party system can develop, that there will be no suppression of the media, and that political prisoners will finally be released," he said.

Rolf Mützenich, Middle East expert for the Social Democrats (SPD), expressed understanding for Kauder's visit, saying Kauder had long been concerned about the situation for Christians in Egypt. Despite this, he said it would have only been correct to invite el-Sissi to Berlin after Egypt had held democratic elections.

"We would do well not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when we only looked for anchors of stability in the region. That cost us a lot of credibility," said Mützenich. He said Germany should require el-Sissi to uphold human rights; the Egyptian leader could send a positive signal by pardoning demonstrators who have been unjustly sentenced.

Conflict in Yemen

Nouripour was also critical of the German government's Middle East policy with regard to the escalating conflict in Yemen. He said it was "absurd" for Germany to be siding with Saudi Arabia in the conflict: Yemen is a complex country with a host of problems that cannot be solved with military intervention from outsiders. By siding with Saudi Arabia, Germany is giving up a chance to act as a mediator, a role that Berlin could have performed well given its many years of close cooperation on development projects with Sanaa.

Rolf Mützenich SPD Pressebild

Mützenich is the Mideast foreign policy expert for the SPD

The Foreign Ministry has deemed Saudi airstrikes on Houthi militia targets in Yemen to be legitimate. The government of Yemen turned to the international community with an "extremely threatening situation," said ministry spokesman Martin Schäfer. "According to international law, it is legitimate to respond to a request for help by a democratically elected head of state."

But Mützenich contends that Saudi Arabia has itself contributed to the chaos in neighboring Yemen. It sees the Shiite Houthis as Iranian agents that it must fight. But the conflict in Yemen is not first and foremost a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran, rather an inner Yemeni dispute that has grown into a situation approximating civil war. "Yemen has a very complex makeup with a very long history," said Mützenich.

Uncertainty surrounding Iraq

The situation in Iraq is equally complicated. According to Nouripour, the German government is not helping to achieve stability. Rather, he said, Germany has supplied weapons to the peshmerga in order to assist the Kurdish fighters in their struggle to counteract the advance of the "Islamic State." However, the weapons are being used by the peshmerga to drive the Sunnis out of Kirkuk.

"The message to the Sunnis is: we don't want you. It's terrible, fatal," said Nouripour. Iraq will only be stable enough to deal with the threat from "Islamic State" militants if the Sunnis can be integrated into the Shiite-dominated power structures.

Mützenich admits to being confounded about how Iraq should best be helped to stop the terrorists and end the civil war. He said that he was skeptical on the issue of weapons shipments to the peshmerga. The Yazidis who were under threat were not rescued by the peshmerga, but by fighters from the banned Kurdish Worker's Party, the PKK, and their allies in Syria. For now, Mützenich has no answer as to how best to fight the "Islamic State."

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